Nightmare finish for NKU’s NCAA dream season

Norse blow 16-point lead in second half as NCAA Tournament hopes vanish.

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Staff Report
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INDIANAPOLIS – Play after play, possession after possession, Northern Kentucky’s Norse were doing their thing. With toughness and precision and a quick-hitting offense and ferocious rebounding.

They were on their way – to their 15th win in the last 17 games, to a Horizon League championship and to their fourth NCAA trip in the last six seasons. The dream was alive.

Just survive another 11:41 with a 57-41 lead and this would be a turnaround season for the ages for the Highland Heights folks. As it turned out, it was a turnaround all right, one that will never be forgotten in the land of the Norse.

But not in a way anyone will care to remember. Although the ugliness of this 72-71 loss helps reveal the beauty of sports. If sports didn’t matter so much, it wouldn’t hurt so terribly.

Asked to explain how NKU’s 16-point lead disappeared in what seemed no more than a split-second, Norse senior Trevon Faulkner, more than 15 minutes after having seen his hopes shattered on a final desperation heave that wasn’t the shot NKU wanted, could still not talk.

Not through his tears and his sobs. Not through the towel that covered his head.

After maybe 15 seconds of giving Trevon a chance to compose himself and reflect on what it felt like to have almost everything go wrong in a 31-14 collapse that final 11:41 – and after crucial Wright State runs of 14-0, 16-2, 22-4, and 28-8 – the postgame press conference moderator moved on to the next question. Trevon’s sobs were all the answer anyone would get — or need.

And how was he to come up with an explanation as to how a team that was doing everything right on both sides of the ball suddenly couldn’t do anything right. Up 16 against a Wright State team it had beaten twice this season by a total of 14 points, if Northern had managed to do almost anything right – on offense or defense – there wouldn’t have been enough time for the Raiders to catch NKU.

But there was. In the first 28:19, NKU had allowed Wright State just 41 points. At that pace, the Raiders would be lucky to score much more than 50. Not against a Norse team that takes so much pride in its best-in-the-Horizon defense.

NKU Coach Darrin Horn didn’t have a much better explanation than Faulkner. But he did describe a two-way collapse. And a shocker. “We expected them to answer,” he said of the Raiders. “But not as fast as they did . . . sometimes your offense can go but we’ve been so good defensively . . . and we were not good. And that affected us on offense.”

Nothing NKU did seemed to affect the Raiders who called on 6-foot-9 Grant Basile (18 points), 6-6 Tanner Holden (19 points) and finally, 6-foot Trey Calvin (21 points) whose lane dagger with 10.5 seconds left finished NKU off after Marques Warrick’s amazing three-pointer under pressure had given Northern a 71-70 lead with 20 seconds left.

Give the Raiders credit. Against an NKU team that had swept them in the regular season and playing even better in this one, Wright State, the Horizon League’s No. 4 seed, could have packed it in.

But with a passionate fan base cheering them on at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum – and in the absence of a similar group cheering on NKU, the Raiders summoned the ability to make stops and get scores in a hurry.

The first nine points in the run came in 1:55 highlighted by the 230-pound Basile’s flying two-hand slam. By the time Wright State had scored 22 points to take the lead, 63-61, in less than five minutes, Northern had managed just four points by backup center Adrian Nelson.

Northern would lead only once more – on Warrick’s three. Not that the Norse did not have their chances. Down 70-68 with Fort Thomas freshman Sam Vinson driving with his left hand on the baseline and a chance to tie or go ahead with 53.5 seconds left, he bounced the ball off his left foot and out of bounds.

And yet, Northern would draw a charge from Holden, get Warrick his shot at a three and watch the sophomore, who fired in a game-high 28, hit it as he did 12 times in his 17 shots including all three threes.

“No, there’s nothing that can be said,” Horn said when asked what he told his team that finished 20-12 after a 6-9 start. “There’s not a lot you can say when you lose (like that).”

But in fact, there was more to be said. “It’s brutal,” Horn said. “These guys played their hearts out. This is what it’s all about. There’s no greater lesson in life. Things don’t always work out . . . but you learn from it.”

Although even if you do, there’s nowhere to put those lessons into use right now. There’s no more season. No more games. No NCAA Tournament. No Horizon championship. “Tournament games are different,” Horn said. Lose and there’s no tomorrow.

“They made one more play than we did,” Horn said looking at the entire game. But in that last 11:41, Wright State made a lot more plays than NKU.

College basketball teams tend to look a lot alike these days getting off the bus in their mostly all-black travel gear as the two teams poured through the Coliseum’s back door at the same time Tuesday.

No hint that an entire season would be wrapped up in a single game. No clue, almost as to who was who for these half-century-old rivals. The Norse – colors gold and black — hit the floor in gray uniforms, while Wright State, whose colors are green and gold, was wearing black. Got to love college sports these days.

And from facial expressions to body language, the pre-game looks could not have been more serious giving away nothing. Afterward, a different story. Wright State was still cutting down the nets with hundreds of fans on the floor well past the time NKU had finished its press conference.

Northern did have a pep band – and a fight song – and a dance team, all here before tipoff. Wright State had a couple of late-arriving busloads of “Rowdies” in their student section – some with musical instruments. For some reason the drive over from Dayton on I-70 must be more appealing than the trip up from Northern Kentucky up I-74. Lots more Wright State fans here.

“You have a total of one student in your student section,” one “Rowdy” screamed down the court to that lone NKU kid. Unfortunately for NKU, he was right. But he spoke too soon. NKU did find three students – and the mascot – to win the tug-o-war contest. So go figure.

Plenty of TV stations from each market were here, which is after all, how we measure whether these things matter. So that’s a yes.

From the tip, it was obvious this one did matter. NKU got – and took – Wright State’s best shot, the one the Raiders beat Cleveland State with. But in a 39-32 first half, NKU gave more than it took as veteran Norse guards Warrick, Faulkner and Bryson Langdon, who would finish with 12 points for the game, made play after play.

Trailing only twice before intermission, NKU stayed ahead in a close game that Faulkner gave them some separation with six points as the half closed out for a nine-point, 39-30 – edge that only a Calvin runner closed to within seven at halftime. It wouldn’t be his last shot to end a half.

Statistically, this was as close as the final score. NKU scored 20 points off Wright State’s 11 turnovers. The Raiders scored 14 off NKU’s 14 turnovers. Wright State outrebounded NKU 30-28 but NKU outshot Wright 51.9 percent (27 of 52) to 45.6 percent (26 of 57).

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