April 13, 2024

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Grambling State rallies to win OT in its first NCAA Tournament appearance

Grambling State rallies to win OT in its first NCAA Tournament appearance

DAYTON, Ohio — The past, present and future of Grambling State coach Donte Jackson came together Wednesday night in the First Four.

Jackson returned to the area where he finished college at Central State, where he met his wife, Shelithia, and where he began his coaching career, and not just in basketball. After helping Grambling State to a historic win, he left the arena holding Shelithia's hand, his team still alive in the NCAA Tournament.

“I actually coached tennis, too,” Jackson said. “I have tennis players in the audience, and former basketball players in the audience.”

Jackson's former “second home” players watched No. 16 Grambling State erase a 14-point second-half deficit to defeat fellow No. 16 Montana State 88-81 in overtime. The Tigers advance in the Midwest Region and will face No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday in Indianapolis.

After eleven 0-28 seasons, Grambling State won its first NCAA Tournament appearance, becoming the first team to open 1-0 in the event since Northwestern in 2017.

“Winning in the first round is amazing,” Jackson said. “This is just a big showcase for our program, just letting these guys know that they could have gone to all these other big schools and things of that nature, but they made the right choice by coming to Grambling.”

The Tigers became the ninth HBCU program to win the NCAA Tournament and the sixth since 2000. They did so behind an unlikely hero in sophomore guard Jemel Cofer, who scored all of his team's 19 points in the second half in overtime, after no play on Launch in the first half, or in Grambling's SWAC championship game win over Texas Southern.

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“Even when I'm not playing, I'm involved in the game because eventually my name will be called,” Cofer said.

“I tell him: 'Just be prepared, just be prepared,'” Jackson added.

Jackson had Cofer replace Grambling State's leading scorer, Kintavious Dozier, who played just six minutes into the first half, in an attempt to get more size against Montana State's ball screens. Cofer frequently attacked Montana State star Robert Ford III, who scored a game-high 26 points and went 6 of 8 on 3-point attempts, but played most of the run with four fouls.

Down 42-33 at halftime, Grambling State players admitted there was some controversy in their locker room.

“We're a team that once we're sparring, five or 10 minutes later, we'll be back, we'll be at the highest level, we'll be talking about adjustments,” senior winger Jordan Smith said. Who scored 18 points and 9 rebounds.

By the time Jackson entered the room, the players had made the necessary adjustments, especially on defense. Despite hot shooting from Ford and junior forward Brian Jurak, the Montana State Tigers held themselves to just 30 points in the second half, getting mixed up in some areas to throw away the Bobcats.

“They're built for adversity,” Jackson said of his players. “I have a lot of guys who come from disadvantaged situations and things like that, and adversity is a part of life. It's about how you bounce back when you're faced with a bad situation.”

Grambling State has less than 48 hours to recharge before facing Purdue, led by 2023 National Player of the Year Zach Eddy. Last year, Purdue became the second No. 1 seed to fall to No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson, which also won a First Four matchup Before facing the Boilermakers.

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Purdue has lost to double-digit seeds in each of its past three NCAA Tournament appearances.

“They don't have the No. 1 seed for nothing,” Jackson said. “They have the best big man in the country, and we have to come in and play. [I’ll watch] Lots of movies tonight. “I didn't get much sleep anyway.”