NKU, just one win away from NCAA, does it with defense

Image provided by NKU athletics

Here we go again. With a dominating defensive effort Monday, Northern Kentucky’s Norse find themselves just one win away from a spot in the NCAA’s Field of 68 after shutting down No. 2 seed Purdue Fort Wayne, 57-43, in the semifinals of the Horizon League Tournament at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.

NKU moves into Tuesday’s nationally televised championship game against Wright State Raiders on ESPN at 7.

And for the fourth time in six seasons, the Norse are one win away from a berth in the NCAA Tournament they secured in 2017, 2019, and 2020. The win marks an amazing turnaround for a Norse team that started the season 6-9 only to win 14 of its last 16 games with hustle, toughness, and defense.

Lots and lots of defense. Lots of steals. Lots of blocked shots. Lots of deflections.

The Norse (20-11), the Horizon’s No. 3 seed, will now face the fourth-seeded Wright State Raiders after the Dayton team upset top-seeded Cleveland State, 82-67, in Monday’s first semifinal game.

That NKU managed to shut down one of the nation’s better shooting teams – and hottest in the Horizon with 10 straight wins – wasn’t exactly expected. One of the top 25 three-point shooting teams in the nation, hitting 38 percent for the year, PFW misfired on its first 12 shots from behind the arc. And credit has to go to NKU’s ability to communicate and play with a tough physicality without fouling.

In a first half that saw neither team able to knock the ball down from outside with any consistency, Purdue Fort Wayne had the more difficult time of it, missing all of their shots from three-point range as Northern jumped out to a 14-5 lead on an 11-0 run. That’s even more amazing considering that Fort Wayne was the best three-point shooting team in the Horizon League.

The tough-defending Norse sprinted out to a couple of double-digit leads early – 19-9 and 25-15 – before the Mastodons scored the final four in a physical, take-no-prisoners 25-19 first half that saw NKU shoot just 32 percent from the field. Northern did manage to hit four threes while limiting PFW to 31 percent shooting from the field.

Just 4:30 into the second half, NKU had its lead into double-digits at 33-22 and PFW, finishing its season at 21-11, never got any closer. The Norse just wouldn’t let them, leading by as many as 21, 57-36, with 1:32 left.

For the season, NKU held opponents to a Horizon League-low 65.8 points while holding the last four to just 62.5 points a game. But to hold Purdue Fort Wayne to 43? That’s not something anyone could have imagined. Although in beating the Mastodons Jan. 28 at BB&T Arena, NKU did it with defense in that one, a 59-49 NKU win.

In this one, NKU held PFW to just 28.8 percent shooting (15 of 52) and a mere 15 percent (three of 20) from three-point distance.

Marquis Warrick again led Northern in scoring with 19 points. NKU outrebounded PFW 46-29, led by Chris Brandon’s 14, while totaling 12 steals – three more than their average of 9.1 that has them No. 14 in the nation, and three blocked shots. Freshman Sam Vinson led NKU with four assists. PFW was led by Jarrod Godfrey’s 11 points.

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