Here they go again. To Indianapolis. For the Horizon League’s Final Four. For the fourth straight season. And fifth time in the last six.
And no, we’re not surprised. And you’re probably not surprised, even for an NKU team that started the season 6-9. And to be honest, neither were the Norse, even though the Detroit Mercy team that stood in their way Thursday night at NKU’s BB&T Arena had swept the Norse this season.
Not a problem. “Guard the ball,” both the Norse players and Coach Darrin Horn said of their game plan that produced what looked like an inevitable, almost ho-hum 77-59 NKU win for the 19-11 Norse who have now won 13 of their last 15.
And while it looked like they expected it, and their fans expected, and their pep band and dance team and cheerleaders and even something of a student section in the BB&T Arena crowd of 2,177 expected it, they all seemed to enjoy this one mightily.
Hey, it’s March. Time for some NKU fun. And an NKU run to Monday’s 9:30 p.m. tipoff at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum against a No. 2 seed Purdue Fort Wayne team Northern split with this season, winning at home 59-49 Jan. 28 after losing 71-57 early on the road Dec. 4. The first semifinal Monday will have No. 1 seed Cleveland State against No. 4 seed Wright State.
Of note to Norse fans: In the second half of the season, NKU has beaten all three of the other semifinalists and not lost to any of them. Not a bad position to be in. Much the way it was Thursday at BB&T.
“The crowd was really with us all night,” said sophomore Marques Warrick, who led NKU with 25 points, nearly matching his 26.0 average from last week that earned him Horizon League Player of the Week honors. His eight-for-12 shooting (and seven of eight from the line) looks so natural even though he admitted “I’m right-handed, I just shoot with my left hand.”
But he dribbled with both as he went right, left, stutter-stepped, then either backed off for a soft jumper or put it on the floor for a floater in the lane or drove to the glass.
The big difference for NKU these past couple of weeks has been the production the Norse are getting from the post where starter Chris Brandon and backup Adrian Nelson, both 6-8 and ferocious rebounders, totaled 16 rebounds (11 for Brandon) and 15 points.
“They were terrific,” Horn said. “It’s really improved (the inside play) . . . we’ve made a conscious effort to get the ball inside.”
Senior guards Trevon Faulkner (13 points) and Bryson Langdon (10 points, four assists) reached double figures as well with Horizon Freshman of the Year Sam Vinson scoring nine with five rebounds, five assists and three steals as he just kept picking the Detroit players’ pockets by taking the ball right out of their hands. Something the savvy, aggressive Highlands’ grad must have learned on the hard courts on the mean streets of Fort Thomas, no doubt.
“What a great atmosphere,” Horn said. “Thank the fans.”
And his players. “We played with poise and confidence,” Horn said. “This game is about players. Players have to make plays.”
And in this game, the plays NKU had to make came against Detroit Mercy senior guard Antoine Davis, the top offensive talent in the league and son of Coach Mike Davis. He came in here off a 38-point first-round playoff game against Green Bay and averaging 24.2 points a game.
After the first half, he had four on one-of-eight shooting as he got few open looks against the NKU defenders. “We’re playing the best defense in the league,” Horn said and the stats back him up as the Norse were limiting opponents to a league-low 65.8, a number that dropped after Thursday.
And now, it’s the second game in a sudden-death season with only one Horizon League team going to the NCAA Tournament. Win two more – something Northern has done in bunches since Jan. 13 after a couple of cancellations and a postponement wiped out most of the first half of that month – and it’s a fourth NCAA bid in seven seasons for the guys from Highland Heights.
Mel Webster found his niche early in life and Northern Kentucky sports were much the better for it. Mel, who died unexpectedly Wednesday, was involved in so many ways that made sports here better.
As an NKU student, he adopted the women’s programs there and made it his business to make them matter. NKU had done its part by scholarshipping its women from the beginning unlike any other program in Kentucky. And one of the reasons we know what we know about them is that Mel chose to help publicize them and their records.
Mel was fortunate in his choice of mentors – two of the best men who ever graced Northern Kentucky sports — in Bill Cappel and Dale McMillen. That got Mel into the softball scene for girls and women where he helped Northern Kentucky produce national championship contenders year after year.
The last time I saw Mel was in November at the 38th Annual Hall of Fame Induction Dinner for the Northern Kentucky Athletic Directors that Mel put together, as usual. And for the 11th time, also served as master of ceremonies. The keepsake program itself is a treasure trove of photos and information. As the former athletic director at Bishop Brossart, who was still coaching girls’ softball there, Mel always went the extra mile,
He had kept his hand in Northern Kentucky sports by doing the kinds of things that mattered but no one else had the time and ability to do. Mel also got the Holmes Sports Hall of Fame off to a great start as well.
But that wasn’t all. Mel excitedly showed me that night some of the tremendous amount of work he was putting together for his book about Ninth Region high school basketball. He had found photos and stories no one had ever seen and couldn’t wait until he had it all together. When the Northern Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame put together its major displays at the Behringer-Crawford Museum, Mel’s work was invaluable. If you needed a photo of John Crigler from his days at Hebron High School, Mel had it.
Here’s hoping Mel’s book can be completed. But no matter, there will be a void on the sports scene here that won’t be easy to fill. And in one of those unexplainable ironies of life, on the day Mel died having come home from conducting a Brossart softball practice, the NKSHOF Board of Directors had unanimously voted to confer on him its Bill Cappel Award for community service.
It will be awarded posthumously but with the thought that so much of what Mel did will live on in the athletes he inspired and those he remembered.