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Norfolk State men move into sole possession of first place in MEAC with OT win over South Carolina State

NORFOLK — It took five extra minutes, but Norfolk State was able to get back in the win column on Saturday. The Spartans beat South Carolina State 71-67 in overtime.

“Another tough MEAC conference game,” Norfolk State coach Robert Jones said. “We knew it was gonna be tough. At the end of the day, we were tied for first and they were tied for second. It was a battle of two of the better teams in the conference, and we’re happy that we were able to pull it out in overtime.”

Norfolk State improved to 16-9 (6-2 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) and now holds sole possession of first place after North Carolina Central’s loss earlier in the day.

Since the Spartans have entered conference play, almost every home game has gone to the wire. Saturday was no different.

With 10 seconds left in overtime, Jamarii Thomas swung the ball to Jaylani Darden on the opposite side of the court. Darden drove down the baseline and pulled up, firing off a floater that went through the basket with seven seconds remaining and gave Norfolk State a 69-67 lead.

“I didn’t think he was gonna take that one, honestly,” Jones said of Darden’s shot. “I think that was like a runner from the corner, which honestly I’ve never probably seen him make, even in practice. … But at the same time, credit to Jaylani, who was dealing with cramps, and he asked to come in when Tyrese fouled out. Credit to him, he stepped up and made a big a big play.”

South Carolina State turned the ball over on the ensuing possession with an offensive foul. Norfolk State got the ball back and George Beale was fouled shortly after. Beale hit two free throws with just more than a second left on the clock to ice the game.

Coming into the game, Jones said winning the rebound battle would be vital to the Spartans’ success, especially because S.C. State is No. 5 in the country in offensive rebounds per game.

The Spartans were able to hang around on the boards in the first half, but the Bulldogs ultimately dominated the rebounding battle. S.C. State finished with 45 rebounds (12 offensive) compared to Norfolk State’s 34 (six offensive).

“They killed us on the boards,” Jones said. “That’s something that we gotta fix. Because the thing is usually when you lose the rebounding battle, especially by double digits, you don’t win the game. … We got to understand that we can’t keep losing rebounding battles, because we’re going to eventually lose the game and we don’t want it to catch us at the wrong time. And obviously, the wrong time would be in the Scope” (at the conference tournament).

Norfolk State got a little help from everyone in the scoring column. Of the 11 Spartans who logged playing time, all but one scored. Thomas and Darden were the lone players for Norfolk State to finish in double digits. Thomas led with 18 points and Darden followed with 14.

Jones said repeatedly after the game that the recent close matchups like Saturday’s are Norfolk State’s dress rehearsals for the MEAC Tournament. With just a few games left in the regular season, Chris Fields said the Spartans need to focus on rebounding and raising their competition levels down the stretch.

“We got to stay on top of it and not play down to the level of our opponent,” Fields said. “(Coach) told us that we feel like we should beat anybody that comes our way in conference. I believe it too, and as long as we believe that, we should be good.”

Norfolk State will be back in action Monday night, when the Spartans take on N.C. Central at 9 p.m. on ESPNU.

Michael Sauls, (757) 803-5774, michael.sauls@virginiamedia.com