Norfolk State Strikes a Blow for Every HBCU

Loose Ball: With their shocking upset in the NCAA tournament, the Spartans gained a nation of fans.

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Norfolk State center Kyle O'Quinn (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

I graduated from Howard University, which competes against Norfolk State University in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Doesn't matter.

Friends of mine graduated from other MEAC schools, such as Hampton, Florida A&M, Morgan State and Bethune-Cookman. Irrelevant.

I also have friends who attended schools in the Southwestern Athletic Conference -- the other Division I league that consists of historically black colleges and universities, such as Texas Southern, Grambling and Prairie View. Inconsequential.

For one glorious weekend, no matter our alma maters, we were all Norfolk State fans. We were rooting as hard as anyone, right alongside NSU students, faculty and alumni in the school's first-ever trip to the NCAA men's basketball tournament: "Behold the green and gold!"

When the Spartans upset the University of Missouri on Friday, 86-84, they became the weekend's biggest story (at least until Lehigh shocked Duke a couple of hours later). It was an upset of historic proportions, since No. 15 seeds had lost a whopping 104 of 108 games against No. 2 seeds prior to Friday. But Norfolk State defied the odds, becoming the first No. 15 to beat a No. 2 since 2001.

Center Kyle O'Quinn, the jovial center who became a media darling in the aftermath, could barely contain himself while exiting the court. "We messed up some brackets! We messed up some brackets!" he bellowed. "We even messed up my bracket."

HBCUs and their fans rarely celebrate much on college basketball's biggest stage, but Norfolk State became the third MEAC team to accomplish the 15-versus-2 miracle, joining Hampton (2001) and Coppin State (1997). Still, teams from the MEAC and SWAC are a combined 9-63 in the men's basketball tournament.

The University of Florida slapped Norfolk State back to reality Sunday with an 84-50 rout that wasn't even as close as it sounds. "We were down 28 points [at halftime]," O'Quinn said. "We couldn't have come back from 28 down even if it was a video game. Yeah, we came back from 17 down to Morgan State this season to win. But this wasn't Morgan State; it was the University of Florida."

But even that stinging defeat couldn't tamp down the joy of Friday's thrilling victory, which filled Twitter timelines and Facebook pages with boasts of the Spartans' feat. It energized the campus in Norfolk, Va., as well as the streets of New York -- home to eight players and two coaches. Plans were in place for a public celebration when the team returned home on Monday.

Even African Americans who didn't attend HBCUs felt a certain sense of pride in Norfolk State. Though the majority of players in the NCAA tournament are black, the MEAC and SWAC schools always stand out a bit more because of historical significance. According to the United Negro College Fund, the 105 HBCUs represent just 3 percent of the nation's colleges and universities but graduate nearly 20 percent of African Americans who earn undergraduate degrees; more than half of all African-American professionals are HBCU graduates.