O'Quinn steps into spotlight for tourney's new Cinderella - Omaha.com
Published Friday, March 16, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 2:44 am
BASKETBALL
O'Quinn steps into spotlight for tourney's new Cinderella

Box Score: Norfolk State 86, Missouri 84
Photo Showcase: Norfolk St. vs. Missouri
Story: O'Quinn steps into spotlight for tourney's new Cinderella
Notes: Spartans gain fans with upset
Story: Omaha fans embrace Spartans
Chatelain: Hungry 15 seed gives Omaha taste of madness

* * *

The new face of March Madness emerged from a locker room that 30 reporters were dying to invade. They turned briefly to Norfolk State's Kyle O'Quinn, two teammates and coach Anthony Evans, but a press rep waved off the horde.

"You can have everyone but these four!" he said. O'Quinn and Co. walked toward a small area cloaked by shabby black curtains to wait for the 15 minutes of fame earned by any No. 15 seed that pulls a NCAA tournament upset.

"We love you!" two Spartan fans yelled at O'Quinn, who flashed a grin back. He'd just played the game of his entire basketball life — that's four years of college and just two in high school — with 26 points, 14 rebounds in NSU's 86-84 win over second-seeded Missouri.

O'Quinn played conductor of a CenturyLink crowd, clapping at fans clad in any color — NSU, Kansas, Creighton, Florida — except Tiger gold. He played litigant to the referees, who'd whistled him for two questionable fouls. And friend to a foe when he hugged a crying Phil Pressey after the Mizzou guard missed at the buzzer.

"He looked like he needed a helping hand," O'Quinn said. "I wanted to pick him up."

He'd talked and played so much on that court. And in a 20-minute interview held in three different spots, the senior from New York City answered every question like an Big Apple entertainer aware of the stage — and his chance to own it.

But as O'Quinn walked past those curtains just off the main interview room, he simply sat down in a black leather, low-slung recliner.

He plopped his right bicep — the one with the words "Shoot for the moon, Land among the stars" tattooed on it — on an armrest. He looked at teammates Pendarvis Williams and Chris McEachin, who buzzed with nervous excitement. Looked at his coach, who stared into a cellphone full of congratulations.

O'Quinn had left his own phone back at the hotel — he was getting too many "four-leaf clover" messages on Twitter — so he unscrewed the cap of a Mountain Berry Blue Powerade and considered a swig.

Here he had a minute to himself. What would he do with it?

Motor of the team

Tommie O'Quinn didn't show up for his son's big game until midway through the first half. Blame Carroll, Kyle's brother. He'd just flown in New York. And he had to watch the end of Creighton's 58-57 win over Alabama at the hotel. And then he wanted a shower.

"A shower!" said Tommie, a landlord. "You don't get no shower before you see Kyle play!"

Still, they were late. And probably in the wrong section — that's Tommie's forte, Kyle said. Mom Regina stayed home in New York.

"She's penny conscious — pennywise and pound foolish!" said Tommie, who'd admittedly booked his hotel room for only Friday night — with an option to extend, of course.

Regina didn't know what could happen. Neither did Kyle. Didn't believe that upset was real until the buzzer. Norfolk State has to really win games, he said. Nothing's given to the No. 15 seed.

Mizzou and Norfolk State were tied at 20 when Tommie and Carroll sat down. Kyle had scored six points. The MEAC Player of the Year had just begun to warm up. He'd splash home a 3-pointer two minutes later. A jumper two minutes after that. And a three-point play just before halftime.

"We knew he was going to eat," NSU guard Brandon Wheeless said. "He was going to mess 'em up. Most definitely. Kyle O'Quinn? He's the motor of the team."

Missouri had three post players. Ricardo Ratliffe wasn't strong enough to stop O'Quinn. Steve Moore wasn't quick enough. Laurence Bowers, hurt all year, at least wore a nice suit.

How many more years of experience did they have on O'Quinn? He started truly playing organized basketball at Campus Magnet High School as a junior. His friend, the school's star quarterback, prodded him into it. And he sat the bench at first.

"My senior year, I was the tallest kid," O'Quinn said. "They needed somebody for the jump ball. That was me."

Enter Norfolk State.

"First person to call my phone," he said. "First person to come see me at the school. First everything. I wouldn't pick nowhere else."

Four years later, that second half in Omaha, the crowd simmering with upset energy, with O'Quinn, doing his best Chris Webber impression with his play — and his emotions.

"Let's go!" he screamed at fans. He walked to Mizzou's free-throw stripe and clapped toward the Tigers' band. He howled after two foul calls went against him, even slamming the ball hard on the court after the second of those fouls, which replays revealed was a clean block.

The crowd was right there with him, but O'Quinn was lucky not to get a technical foul, and he knew it. So later, he walked up to referee Ed Hightower, grabbed him by both arms and said "I'm sorry." But then he added: "I didn't touch the shot." And then "I'm sorry" again.

To the final, unforgettable minute. A flurry of big plays, several featuring O'Quinn. With the game tied at 81 with 34.9 seconds left, he plucked an airball away from Missouri players, flipped it into the hoop and converted a three-point play. With eight seconds, he and Pressey grabbed the same loose ball and crashed to the floor simultaneously. Jump ball. Spartan ball.

"My focus was to get it out of his hands," O'Quinn said. "Thank God the possession arrow was facing our way, but I know I wasn't going to let it go. Nothing was going to make let that ball go."

With three seconds, Mizzou fouled him. O'Quinn, who'd hit 5 of 7 free throws, missed two. What was he thinking?

"You wouldn't know, you didn't shoot those kind of free throws!" he joked to a reporter. Actually, he wanted to crawl in a hole. His teammates placated him. But Pressey had to miss that last shot for O'Quinn to breathe easy.

"I didn't want to be the goat of the game," O'Quinn said. "You're either the hero or the goat."

Hello hero.

A reporter asked for Tommie, who bolted down to the first row of seats holding up a suede leather jacket with Kyle's number and name on it. CBS cameras found him exalting, a green-beaded necklace bouncing against his chest.

"No 10! Kyle O'Quinn! No. 10! Yeah baby! No. 10! Yeah! Yeah! Right here!" On it went for a minute. Tommie settled down and said it felt like a "bow and arrow" was going through his head.

Kyle's personality? That's from Dad.

"His mom don't have nothing to do with it," Tommie joked.

Reporters saw the raconteur bloom in the postgame presser. Kyle recounted the story of a "75-year-old Kansas fan" who saw him at Granite City. Whatever you do, she told Kyle, beat Mizzou.

Asked about having NBA aspirations, Kyle said sure, before busting open a smile.

"My future is winning on Sunday, how about that?" he said. "Let's take small steps."

On NSU's band and cheerleaders: "When they're shaking it like that, you gotta look over there."

On President Obama picking Mizzou for the Final Four: "Maybe next time you'll think about the underdogs. Because we play hard."

On preparing for Missouri: "We actually had Phil Pressey in our practice." A pause. "I'm joking."

Reporters stood six deep as Kyle leaned against a corner wall in the locker room. "O'Quinnsanity!" a fan outside yelled. "It's a zoo!" said a Norfolk State administrator. Or a circus. With Cinderella in the center ring after six years of playing in obscurity.

But back to that waiting room. As Missouri's players ambled to the interview stage just 30 feet away, Kyle O'Quinn created a space in that chair inhabited by no one else.

He looked at the Powerade. Took a good gulp. He slumped down in the chair, resting his head against the top of the cushion. He looked up at the pipes painted all in black, like a moonless night sky. His eyes became a slit, almost closed. He held that pose, and just for a second, he smiled. Satisfaction.

Contact the writer:

402-202-9766, sam.mckewon@owh.com

twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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