Grambling State rallies for OT win in NCAA tournament debut

DAYTON, Ohio — Grambling State coach Donte’ Jackson’s past, present and future came together Wednesday night at 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, also,” Jackson said. “I got tennis players in the crowd, former basketball players in the crowd.”

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

Eleven seasons after going 0-28 , Grambling State won its NCAA tournament debut, becoming the first team to open 1-0 in the event since Northwestern in 2017.

“To get a first-round win, it’s just amazing,” Jackson said. “That is just major exposure for our program, just letting these guys know that they could have went to all these other big schools and things of that nature, but they chose right by coming to Grambling.”

The Tigers became the ninth HBCU program to win in the NCAA tournament and the sixth since 2000. They did so behind an unlikely hero in sophomore guard Jimel Cofer, who scored all of his team-high 19 points in the second half in overtime, after not playing at all in the first half, or in Grambling’s SWAC championship game win over Texas Southern.

“Even when I’m not playing, I’m locked in on the game because eventually, my name’s going to be called,” Cofer said.

“I tell him, ‘Just be ready, just be ready,'” Jackson added.

Jackson had Cofer replace Grambling State’s leading scorer, Kintavious Dozier, who played only six minutes after halftime, in an effort to have more size against Montana State’s ball screens. Cofer repeatedly attacked Montana State star Robert Ford III, who had a game-high 26 points and went 6-of-8 on 3-point attempts, but played much of the stretch run with four fouls.

Down 42-33 at halftime, Grambling State players acknowledged some arguing in their locker room.

“We’re a team that once we argue, five, 10 minutes later, we’re going to get back, we’re going to high-five, we’re going to talk about adjustments,” said senior wing Jourdan Smith, who had 18 points and 9 rebounds.

By the time Jackson entered the room, the players had made the necessary tweaks, especially on defense. Despite hot shooting from Ford and junior forward Brian Goracke, the Tigers held Montana State to only 30 second-half points, mixing in some zone to throw off the Bobcats.

“They’re built on adversity,” Jackson said of his players. “I’ve got a lot of guys that come from underprivileged situations and things of that nature, and adversity is part of life. It’s about how you bounce back when you get in a bad situation.”

Grambling State has less than 48 hours to recharge before facing Purdue, led by 2023 national player of the year Zach Edey. Last year, Purdue became only the second No. 1 seed to fall against a No. 16 seed in Fairleigh Dickinson, which also won a First Four game before facing the Boilermakers.

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 guy in the country, and we’ve got to come in and play. [I’ll watch] lot of film tonight. I haven’t been sleeping much anyway.”

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