Comeback falls short as App State loses heartbreaker

The Mountaineers rallied but fell short in a comeback against Norfolk State

Appalachian State guard Justin Forrest lies on the floor after his team's loss to Norfolk State in a First Four game in the NCAA Tournament in Bloomington, Indiana. (Doug McSchooler / AP Photo)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In its third-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, Appalachian State lost a heartbreaker to Norfolk State 54-53 in the First Four on Thursday at Bloomington’s Assembly Hall.

The Mountaineers looked like they were going to get run out of the gym, falling behind by as many as 19 points in the first half. App had 10 first-half turnovers leading to 14 Norfolk State points and was a woeful 0 for 18 from three in the first 20 minutes.

“They were being very aggressive. They had us back on our heels,” App State coach Dustin Kerns said. “Our guys … just nerves. It was the first time with the bright lights. It took us awhile to settle down. We kept missing and missing and then the pressure kept mounting.”

At halftime, Kerns focused on calming his team down.

“I told them to trust our reps,” he said. “The shots will fall. Relax. Be confident. At the half, our guys settled down a bit.”

Did they ever. App had a 16-0 run at some point and pulled in front, building a lead of as many as six points with 5:47 left.

The Mountaineers, however, wouldn’t make another shot from the field. Norfolk State scored seven straight points then, after a pair of App free throws, hit the tying and go-ahead points from the line with eight seconds left.

“We spent a lot of energy coming back in the game,” Kerns said.

Three thoughts

1. App State had a last possession to hit a game-winner. After bringing the ball to half court, the Mountaineers took a time out with 4.7 seconds left to set up the final play. Michael Almonacy missed a 3-pointer, and Justin Forrest’s put-back attempt was off as time expired on the Mountaineers’ season. Several App players remained prone on the floor for some time after the game, not willing to get up and walk back to the locker room.

2. Kerns explained what was supposed to happen on the last play: “It was designed for a back cut for (Justin) Forrest,” he said. “They made the entry very difficult, and it became a broken play. I certainly thought Almonacy’s three was down. Then we got another look at it, but it was designed to get Forrest a layup at the rim on a back cut.”

3. The comeback was nothing new for App.

“We’re fighters,” Kerns said. “We came down from 22 a couple weeks ago and won. We certainly came back tonight. We’re never out of it. We’re going to be 40 minutes whether we’re up or down. When you get down, which is basketball, you have to have a connected group. You have to have high character to be able to come back. I certainly think our program has got a lot of character, a lot of fight.”

Number to Know

6-of-18 — After missing all 18 threes in the first half, App hit 6-of-18 in the second half. The Mountaineers shot 4-of-13 on two-pointers in the half.

They Said It

“I’m proud of how our team fought back. That’s March Madness — there’s heartbreak. There’s buzzer-beaters. That’s it right there. That’s why everybody loves it.”

—App State coach Dustin Kerns

Player of the Game

Justin Forrest, App State guard — The senior led the way with 18 points, including 3-of-11 from three. He added four rebounds and had a plus-minus of plus-7 to lead the team.

Critical thinking

The Mountaineers and Spartans put on a show with an entertaining game to help welcome back the first night of March Madness. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t do it as part of the round of 64. Teams that win their conference tournament shouldn’t be relegated to the First Four.