For the second time in three years, Howard’s women’s basketball players watched in despair with confetti in their hair as their opponents celebrated clinching a spot in the NCAA tournament. That was the scene Saturday at Scope Arena in Norfolk, where Norfolk State prevailed, 56-52, in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championship game.
“This was God’s plan,” junior Destiny Howell said. “Sometimes you’re not [going to] like what God has planned for us. And, obviously, I didn’t like the outcome of this year. But we’ll be back — I promise you that.”
Having seen the men’s team clinch its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1992 with a dramatic win against the same opponent earlier in the day, the third-seeded Howard women hoped to make a repeat trip after claiming the MEAC tournament title last season. On Saturday, the Bison (16-14) opened with a spirited effort and sprinted to an 11-2 advantage. But top-seeded Norfolk State (26-6) used a sizable advantage on the boards to climb within 30-29 at halftime.
In the third quarter, the Spartans held Howard to five points to grab a six-point lead, and they remained in front for the entirety of the fourth quarter to claim a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
Howard Coach Ty Grace was pleased that her team held two of Norfolk State’s top scorers — Deja Francis and Camille Downs — to six points apiece. “What we didn’t do is rebound the ball well,” Grace said. “… That hurt us.”
After losing the rebounding battle in 19 of its first 24 games, Howard seemingly had fixed its issues; the Bison had outrebounded five straight opponents leading into the MEAC final. But those rebounding issues returned: Norfolk State dominated the boards 45-30.
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“When you’ve played a team as many times as we have played Norfolk State, it’s really difficult to surprise or expose a weakness, specifically in a tournament type of setting,” Grace said beforehand. “But rebounding will always shift games because it’s something that you can’t really plan or scout for because you don’t know how the ball is going to bounce.”
Howell, the MEAC player of the year, hit eight three-pointers to lead Howard with 30 points. She made two from the perimeter in the final 20 seconds, but Norfolk State held on at the free throw line. Aziah Hudson added 10 points for the Bison.
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After falling to North Carolina A&T by two points in the 2021 MEAC title game, Howard was seeking consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament for the first time since it made three straight appearances from 1996 to 1998. That won’t happen, but the program continues to improve under Grace. In her eight seasons, the Bison have made three appearances in the MEAC title game and have one NCAA tournament victory — over Incarnate Word in a First Four play-in game last season before a lopsided loss to eventual champion South Carolina in the round of 64.
“This program has built a culture of winning, and I’m hoping that that’s something we continue to do,” Grace said. “Tonight is not our defining season.”
ESPN’s Charlie Creme projects the Spartans are in position to avoid the First Four and should miss a meeting with South Carolina, an experience the Bison know all too well. Makoye Diawara led the way Saturday with 11 points and nine rebounds. Niya Fields had 11 points and six rebounds.