Game 7: Gophers Host Norfolk State (11-29-23)

Ignatius L Hoops

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Sep 9, 2015
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Last season, Norfolk State created a local stir by winning the MEAC tournament and pocketing the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. The Spartans finished the season 26-7 (11-3 MEAC). It’s been a successful run for head coach, Larry Vickers, now in his nineth season at NSU. Vickers is 70-40 in the MEAC with back-to-back regular season titles. Rewarded with a trip to Columbia, South Carolina Norfolk State was dispatched by the Gamecocks 40-72 in the first round.

Then, last May, the Spartans created a national stir by signing point guard Diamond Johnson . Gopher fans remember Johnson from her freshman year at Rutgers when she led the Scarlet Knights to an 83-56 victory over Minnesota. Johnson was 6-7 from three on her way to a 26-point performance. Johnson left for North Carolina State following that season and spent two productive years with the WolfPack. Larry Vickers was understandably excited about her arrival:

"Diamond is such trailblazer with clear purpose and self-belief," said Coach Vickers. "She has already spoken loudly about her faith in my program with her commitment to us. We have a job to do and we're excited about finishing the job with a close to perfect score. Not everyday you get to coach a McDonalds All-American/Olympian but this young lady is about so much more than basketball."

BUT, Johnson is currently in the NCAA waiver process and has yet to be cleared to play this season. Damn. I was looking forward to watching her match up with Battle.

Norfolk State has a local connection. Kierra Wheeler is a 6’-1” junior forward who played her high school ball at Cooper. She started her career at Daytona State before transferring to NSU last season. Not only is she the Spartans leading scorer, but she’s also the only player averaging over ten points per game with 14.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in 28.1 minutes per game.

Norfolk State was 5-0 before they ran into the buzz saw that is Eastern Tennessee and were ground down in a 35-55 loss in Miami. The Spartans rebounded with a 58-51 win over Colgate. The five opening season wins were: @ William & Mary 66-64, @ Drexel 51-49, @ Radford 70-46, Appalachian State 67-53 and @ Hampton 59-45. Unlike the Gophers, Norfolk State are road warriors.

Road Warriors: Gophers play 29 games - 19 of them at Williams Arena
and the Big Ten Tournament is in town as well.
Win our home games...sneak away with a couple on the road and there is our formula for 20 some wins.
Oh, we screwed that up...lost to UConn. So, gotta figure out how to steal another upset road win.
Pretty crazy...
We played 11 road games last year. Only winning one. We beat Penn St. on the road and at home last year. That will be tougher this year...with a tough non conference schedule for Penn St they are 6 and 1 losing to 8th ranked USC by one point.
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Charles Hallman with a preview
Norfolk State Spartans plays Minnesota on Wednesday, November 29 in women’s basketball action. The Spartans were picked first in the MEAC preseason poll: “We’re a defensive-oriented league,” Coach Larry Vickers told reporters last month during the MEAC Media Day that the MSR attended. “We see a lot of zone defenses—no one plays us man.”

Vickers is in his ninth overall and eighth full season as Norfolk State’s head women’s basketball coach. He led the Spartans to a 26-7 overall mark and an NCAA first-round tournament appearance, winning both the MEAC regular season (11-3) and tournament titles last season. He was named MEAC Coach of the Year and HBCU National Coach of the Year.

“People were surprised at how well we played against South Carolina [in a loss to the number one seed],” the coach recalled. “Everybody in this league helps prepare us for any tournament action we might see.”

Other than his first season in 2015-16 when Vickers was named interim HC for the final 11 games, Vickers’ Spartans have finished in the conference’s first division each season at the helm—two first-place finishes, two second-place and three fourth-place finishes.

A school fixture, Vickers spent eight seasons as an assistant coach for the Norfolk State men’s team and earned his B.A. in electronic technology (2007). He walked onto the NSU men’s team in 2004-05 and quickly earned playing time, becoming the team’s Most Improved Player as a sophomore.

“We want people to watch us play and say, ‘Hey I like watching you play and respect the way you play basketball,” said Vickers. “That’s important to me and my team.”

When asked to briefly explain what Gopher fans might see from his squad this week, Vickers told the MSR, “They can expect two things: One, we will work our butts off on the defensive end. Offensively, we probably are a lot more structured than teams expect us to be. We’re super organized, we run a lot of offense, and we show teams some options.

“I think that it would be exciting to watch us play,” he predicted.

Four Spartan players were named preseason All-MEAC, including 6-1 junior Kierra Wheeler of Minneapolis. Wheeler helped the school win the 2023 MEAC Tournament Championship In her first season at Norfolk State after transferring from Daytona State College and was named its Most Outstanding Player last season. The Robbinsdale Cooper grad was second on the team in scoring (11.1 PPG) and led the Spartans in total rebounds (8.4).

“She had a special summer and lost 25 pounds. She changed her diet and [worked] in the gym Monday through Friday,” said Vickers of Wheeler. The junior isn’t big on individual accolades—she just wants to win, he said. He added, “She has a super-high basketball IQ.”

Junior point guard Niya Fields (Peekskill, NY), junior forward Makoye Diawara (Bayonne, NJ) and junior guard Da’naijah Williams (Brooklyn, NY) also joined Wheeler on the preseason all-conference squad.

Finally, last week, Wheeler was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Week: she posted a 13-point, 12-rebound double-double against App State and a career-best four steals. She followed that up with 15 points and nine rebounds at Hampton along with a block.

NSU is the fourth visiting opponent Minnesota faced this season that is led by a Black head coach.

Look for a follow-up story with coach Vickers and Kieran Wheeler in upcoming editions of the MSR.

Last season, Norfolk State made the NCAA Tournament after winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Women's Basketball Tournament. Then they became the tasty opening appetizer for #1 seed South Carolina.


They just lost to East Tennesse State before beating Colgate in the Miami Thanksgiving Tournament.

in the early going, I'm glad to see Battle successfully fight over screens up top.

Of course, as soon as I post, she goes under a screen up top and Norfolk gets an open 3. Argh.

Loved how Hart picked up the ball and moved her feet to stay in position to get that block.

Defense looks good through 1st quarter. Moving their feet, getting into some passing lanes, forcing some difficult shots. Now need the offense to get good ball movement and reasonable threat at the high post to attack the half-court zone. .

Oh my. That Mullins is just too big of a load for Holliway to handle that deep in the lane! If she gets that deep with the ball, you're gonna need help from the top to see if you can strip the ball.

40-22 at half gophers. Defense has been excellent. Norfolk seems to be having a poor shooting night.'

Mara has been off on her shot, but others have stepped up.

Love the 3 assists from Hart along with 7 points and 5 boards!

By far the most impressive things for me in the first half is the Gophers lock-down defense, both half-court and in transition. Moving well, communicating well, not giving up second shots, identifying the shooters and either staying on them or closing out well. Nice first half.

Starters have played heavy minutes, wonder if that changes in 2nd half

Man, Hart should have gotten an assist on the Battle turnaround in the lane on her last basket, even though she never touched the ball. Set a really good screen up over the free throw line, then rolled down and got a great seal near the bottom of the lane, which ensured there could be no defensive help from the big that Hart had pinned under the basket. That was awesome!

Wow, announcer makes point that Heyrs hustle is impacting game. excellent observation

Through 3 quarters, the defense has held Norfolk to just 12 baskets, taken away the 3 point shot for the most part and been in control the whole way. GG hustled her way to a couple of last second free throws and this game seems to be under control.

Gotta go to work. Counting on the rest of you to not let Norfolk back into this game!

Overall the team is really executing on defense. I see great help and rotations, nice effort, denying the post, playing the passing lanes, trapping the screens. I am very impressed with the improvement. The ladies are developing. That is all you can ask for.

we still need to get better against the press, but again I am seeing improvement

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