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Mar 19, 2024 2:25 pm

Grambling set for NCAA debut vs. Montana State in First Four

Grambling, jourdan smith

A pair of No. 16 seeds in the Midwest Region meet Wednesday night in the opener of a First Four doubleheader in Dayton, Ohio, with the winner advancing to meet top-seeded Purdue.

Grambling State (20-14) will take on Montana State (17-17), a surprise winner over cross-state rival Montana in the Big Sky title game.

The Tigers, known for their rich football history, earned their first-ever trip to the NCAA Division I basketball tournament with a 75-66 win over Texas Southern on Saturday in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game.

Leading the way for Grambling State was Jourdan Smith with a team-high 20 points. He set the tone with three 3-pointers early in the contest.

Antwan Burnett added 14 points while Jonathan Aku chipped in 12 points and three steals for the Tigers, who avenged a shocking loss to Texas Southern in last year’s SWAC championship game that cost them a trip to the NCAAs.

Grambling State, the NAIA 1961 national champion, entered this year’s SWAC tournament as the No. 1 seed after posting a 14-4 mark in conference play. Last year, the Tigers were SWAC regular-season co-champions and the second seed in the league tourney before they were upset by eighth-seeded Texas Southern.

This time, the Tigers were able to string together three wins in four days for the championship.

“Just happy and an incredible feeling,” Grambling State coach Donte’ Jackson said. “What a game from Jourdan Smith to get us started, three, three and three. Just proud of my guys, just an incredible feeling. I can’t even explain it.”

Jackson was named the SWAC Coach of the Year for the third time since taking the job in 2017-18. He owns a 119-101 record while with Grambling State.

“Last year, just after the season ended (with loss to Texas Southern), there were days I was up till 5 in the morning not being able to sleep,” Smith said. “Like Coach said, we’ve been waiting on this moment for 364 days. It was just that time. It meant something different to me because last year it was just (after) my pop passed so I didn’t get to play.”

While Grambling State is making its maiden voyage to the NCAA Tournament, Montana State is taking its sixth trip to the event and its third in a row.

The Bobcats, under first-year coach Matt Logie, earned their way in after defeating Montana 85-70 on March 13 in the Big Sky championship game.

“We’ve just continued to grow and try to get 1 percent better each day,” Logie said postgame. “In the second half this week we were special. We had 66 points in the second half against Weber State. Someone told me it was a 41-9 run (against Montana on Saturday). We’ve talked about avalanche basketball and trying to create avalanches for our team.”

Montana State got hot at the right time in the conference tournament after concluding Big Sky regular-season play at a pedestrian 9-9, in fifth place.

The winner of the first-ever matchup between Grambling State and Montana State will advance to third-ranked Purdue (29-4) on Friday in Indianapolis. The Boilermakers will have a decided home-court advantage while playing approximately 70 miles from their campus.

–Field Level Media

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