OMAHA, Neb. -- During the final TV timeout, John Pelphrey leaned forward and tapped a reporter on the shoulder. "What are they shooting?" he wanted to know, they being the Spartans of Norfolk State. Pelphrey was sitting courtside to scout Florida's next opponent. He'd been scribbling notes -- and sure, probably concentrating on No. 2 Missouri. But like everyone else, the Florida assistant coach was suddenly swept up in what he was seeing. The 15th-seeded Spartans led Mizzou by four. At that point, they'd hit five of six three-point attempts in the second half. But maybe more important than the statistics, they'd had an answer for everything the higher-seeded Tigers threw at them.
Pelphrey sat back, shook his head, and noted one other fact: "And they've gotten no calls," he said -- surely channeling the sentiment of thousands watching, at CenturyLink Center and everywhere else, who were hoping for an upset.
Turned out, Norfolk State didn't need any calls. The Spartans just kept hitting shots, and feeding off the crowd's energy -- or was it the other way around? -- and when Phil Pressey's long three-pointer missed as time expired, we finally had March mayhem. Norfolk State 86, Missouri 84 marked the fifth time in 110 games a No. 15 had beaten a No. 2, and the first time in 11 years. By the numbers alone it's one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament.
Too bad it's not even the biggest of the day.
Lehigh's win a couple of hours later -- another 15 beating another 2 -- will lead SportsCenter, because beating Duke always moves the needle. But here's the thing to keep in mind about Norfolk State's victory: The Spartans might keep winning. They'll meet No. 7 Florida on Sunday. The Gators should win, of course. The seeds say so. They cannot possibly shoot as poorly as they did in a 71-45 win over Virginia (a season-low 4-of-23 from three-point range from a team that led the nation in threes per game). The Spartans surely can't shoot as well as they did in beating Mizzou (54.2 percent overall, 52.6 percent from three-point range).
Or can they? Pelphrey and Florida coach Billy Donovan watched the first half together from press row, talking mostly about Missouri but clearly impressed with the other guys. At one point, when Spartans center Kyle O'Quinn plucked a loose ball, turned and scored, Pelphrey exclaimed: "Great hands!" The exuberant 6-foot-10 senior scored 26 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and generally filled up the stat line on both ends of the floor. He was joined by guards Pendarvis Williams and Chris McEachin who tallied 20 points each. They're both 6-6, and along with O'Quinn they gave the smaller Tigers trouble all night.
Certainly, it was a bad matchup for Missouri. The Tigers were unexpectedly good this season, Frank Haith's first as coach. But remember how we wondered, even as they won 30 games, when and if their lack of size and dependence on four guards and the perimeter game would become an issue? Norfolk State's 37-25 rebounding edge included 14 offensive rebounds, including a couple of three-point plays that came after air balls (Haith made a point to mention those, several times).
"We're not very big," Haith said. "We've got to be so perfect at blocking out and rebounding the ball, and this team was not tonight, and that did us in."
The second air ball-turned-three came from O'Quinn with 34.9 seconds left. "Thanks to Chris McEachin, it hit no rim," O'Quinn said, "and I got a clear shot." McEachin, hearing O'Quinn, just waved and laughed. It was that kind of atmosphere. If the Spartans never acted like they were just happy to be in the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program's 15-year history -- instead, they played like savvy, swaggering March veterans -- they certainly celebrated after their first win.
During it, too. The crowd would have gotten behind the Spartans, regardless. It's how March Madness works; the underdog shows a pulse and, well, suddenly we're all Spartans. The phenomenon was accentuated by the presence of Kansas fans who were already cheering against their bitter rival. But it was encouraged and punctuated by the Spartans, who pumped fists and pumped up the fans after big plays.
When it was over, O'Quinn grabbed the ball -- a rebound that didn't count -- sprinted downcourt, and yelled. His teammates gathered at midcourt and danced for a moment. And Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans went and found his wife, Kisha. As cameras caught the moment, they shared an embrace and a kiss. Later, Kisha Evans took out her iPhone and snapped several pictures of Anthony surrounded by reporters.
"I'm just trying to capture as many moments as possible," she said.
Afterward, it was evident Missouri players still weren't sure what hit them -- or who. "You don't see them on TV, the guys don't know their players," Haith said. "You worry that they don't understand, 'Hey, these guys are pretty darn good.'" To which Norfolk State's Williams responded: "That's the beauty of it, they don't know anything about us." So here's an introduction:
Norfolk State is in its 15th season at the Division I level. The Spartans' first NCAA tournament appearance was achieved by winning seven straight games, including the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championship. Now, let's make it eight straight. And let's note that the Spartans (26-9), who finished second in the MEAC in the regular season, believe they were hardened by a fairly difficult nonconference schedule. They started the season last November in the Paradise Jam. After a 31-point loss to Marquette, they beat Drexel, then TCU and then lost to Marquette again -- but this time, by two points.
"It just paid off for us," Evans said. "... It gives you confidence, experience against high-level teams."
Norfolk State won't create the same matchup issues for Florida as for Missouri. But don't tell the Spartans the Sweet 16 isn't achievable. Not after the confidence and experience they gained in beating Mizzou. Near the end of the postgame interview session, someone asked O'Quinn about his future plans. Given his size, versatility and knack for the game, the MEAC's player of the year and defensive player of the year will surely get a long look. "I don't know," he said. "Hope somebody picks me up. Go pro. I don't know. I don't know."
O'Quinn paused, then restarted.
"What my future is? Winning on Sunday. How about that? Let's take small steps."
He and his teammates just took a giant one.