Hampton, Norfolk State evolve differently heading into stretch run

HAMPTON — The uniforms haven't changed, but Hampton and Norfolk State have been different teams at different times thanks to injuries, additions and subtractions.

Both hope that they approach the best available versions of themselves as they head into Saturday's showdown at the Spartans' Echols Hall (6 p.m.) and the final weeks of the season.

"The way we wanted to play at the beginning of the season is not the way we play now," Norfolk State coach Robert Jones said. "The adjustments that we've made have been trying at times, but it easily could have gone the other way."

The Spartans (14-10, 8-2 MEAC) and Hampton U. (13-11, 8-3 MEAC) are second and third, respectively, in the conference and have taken opposite paths to the top of the league race.

Hampton has reinvented itself a couple of times with the staggered mid-season additions of post player Jervon Pressley and guard Breon Key. They've added depth and versatility to a young team that continues to adjust to roles and lineup combinations.

"I think we're playing relatively well," HU coach Ed Joyner Jr. said. "Guys are beginning to have a better understanding of what it takes to win, from a team aspect. Individually, we've had bright spots all year. But from a team aspect, we fell short.

"Some of that is adding new people all the time. … Now, everyone else, with those two additions, are basically settling into not necessarily new roles, but different ways that they may have to contribute."

The Pirates have won five of six, the only loss a marathon, double-overtime foul-fest at Morgan State. They've won in overtime (Coppin State), by running away early (Howard), and coming from behind late while overcoming dismal foul shooting (Maryland Eastern Shore).

High-flying forward Du'Vaughn Maxwell, one of only two seniors, has been the hub. He leads the Pirates in scoring (15.2 ppg), rebounding (7.2 rpg), blocks (81), steals (30) and energy. Sophomore guard Deron Powers (10.5 ppg) is the only other Pirate in double figures, but in conference play, eight players average between five and eight points per game, sometimes logging widely divergent minutes from one game to the next.

"The one thing that we're stressing with this team," Joyner said, "and I think they're beginning to understand is, be more comfortable with the win than you are with your personal performance. That's the one thing we have to constantly keep telling them."

While Joyner manages many and juggles lineups, Jones has often done more with less and made a case to have the "interim" tag removed from his title after he replaced Anthony Evans. The Spartans' attrition began in preseason when guard Sajae Pryor broke his foot and was sidelined for the season. Guard Jordan Weathers went down for the season in December. Post man RaShid Gaston missed almost two months with a torn meniscus.

Leading scorer Malcom Hawkins was sidelined with a neck injury recently. Initial reports said that the redshirt senior's career was over, but he has resumed non-contact workouts and hopes to return. Gaston returned from the original injury, but has been slowed a bit by an ankle sprain.

Norfolk State began the season aiming to run and press and play games in the 80s. With limited depth and a pair of solid big men in Gaston and 7-foot Brandon Goode, the Spartans run judiciously to conserve legs, play much more zone defense, take advantage of their size inside and shorten the game by going a bit longer on the shot clock.

Tempo, Jones said, will be critical as the Spartans aim for their fifth win in their last six MEAC games.

"They play at the pace we used to play," he said. "We still do it in spurts, but we don't want to do it the whole game. It's definitely going to be up to us to control tempo a little bit more than they want us to. They want to get it up in the 80s. We used to be happy getting it into the 80s or even the 90s, but not now. We're happy in the 60s or low 70s."

Joyner has watched pieces of all of the Spartans' incarnations. He knows that they are capable of playing, and winning, in different ways.

"More than I'm worried about Norfolk," he said. "I want to be confident about what team we have going in there and who we are going in there. I do think that over these last five or six games we're starting to do a better job of figuring out who we are, with all of our pieces in place."

Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.

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