The band kept playing until the very end.
Just the way the Norse men’s basketball team did.
And the fans, almost every one of the record Truist Arena crowd of 8,305 — just 100 below a sellout — stayed well past the end.
Who could blame them? The students, who turned out in record numbers, were mostly still on the floor, clapping their Norse heroes on the back as they kept checking out the scoreboard.
NKU 64, UC 51.
But a more indicative score might have been this one: NKU 28, UC 11. That’s how the second half went down. That’s right. Not a misprint.
Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: NKU made tough shots and in the second half, made Cincinnati take tough shots the Bearcats could not make.
NKU manhandled a big-time Cincinnati program — “historically one of the Top 20 all-time,” Northern basketball coach Darrin Horn called UC — and just pulled away at the end as the Truist Arena decibel level kept increasing with the scoring margin.
“Where do we start?” Horn asked in opening his post-game remarks.
“That was an unbelievable college basketball atmosphere,” said Horn, who in his coaching career at Texas and South Carolina has been part of a number of these moments. “. . . big-time college basketball right here in Highland Heights, Northern Kentucky.”
Big-time effort the way Northern took it to the bigger Bearcats, blocking eight of their shots, with five Norse getting at least one block. And stole it four times.
Slight correction there. Sam Vinson stole it four times. And did so after more than a week of not practicing a single minute as he rehabbed his badly sprained ankle.
“Sam Vinson hasn’t had a live rep in eight days,” Horn said, “the first time down the floor was his first live rep.”
Tell that to the Bearcats as the sophomore from Fort Thomas and former Kentucky Mr. Basketball played 28 minutes, scored 15 points, dealt out three assists recording a game-high plus/minus 21 points.
“We knew at 1 p.m. today,” Horn said of when he learned Sam would be available. “He just told us he was playing.”
And then he just played, like when one of those 6-8 UC front-liners would try to back Vinson down, pounding once, twice, as they pushed Sam toward the basket before he’d had enough and just grabbed the ball with both hands and headed the other way.
“Sam just took the ball,” Horn said, shaking his head at the audacity of it. And then he did it again. Twice in a row as UC tried to mount a final charge only to find themselves down double digits against an NKU defense that would not back down.
How bad did it get for the Bearcats? After shooting 53.3 percent the first half on 16 of 30 from the field, they bottomed out the second half, knocking down just four of 29 shots — an almost unfathomable 13.8 percent.
But Vinson was by far not alone when it came to playing.
“The way you win a big game,” Horn said. “Everybody’s got to play well.”
Which is pretty much what happened. Marques Warrick, the 6-foot-2 junior guard from Lexington, did just that from the the get-go, hitting one twisting, driving shot after another, scoring 14 of his game-high 22 points in the first half as NKU hung in there, trailing 40-36 at intermission.
“I always come to play,” Warrick said later after his nine-of-17 shooting including two of two from three-point range. “We knew we could compete against them — and win,” he said after starring on offense while recording three aggressively athletic blocks.
“But it’s a lot different when you’ve got 8-9,000-people there,” Warrick added, “that’s the first time in my college career.”
It was hard to tell who felt better, the Norse players — or their fans. Or maybe their coach as that opening 22-point home loss to a very good Kent State team seemed a mere footnote here.
Don’t look at him, Horn said. This one belonged to his players.
“Our guys played their guts out,” Horn said. “Defensively our guys were unbelievable. But the biggest thing was our guys just competed. I thought we were the more physical team.”
Which is the intro line for NKU’s lone player with any size on a team that starts four guards and a forward. That forward is 6-8, 220-pound rebounder Chris Brandon, who faced four Bearcats taller than he was including 6-11 Russian Viktor Lakhin and still came away with a game-high 16 rebounds. Lakhin had nine. And Brandon won the scoring battle as well, 10-9.
That’s how you do it: everybody does his job. No one backs down. And the crowd is there for you every minute of the way.
CIN 40 11 51
NKU 36 28 64
Cincinnati: Lakhin 4-0-1-9, Nolley 3-1-0-7, Adams-Woods 1-1-1–4, DeJulius 4-1-0-9, Davenport 2-2-2-8, Ezipke 3-0-0-6, Phinisee 0-0-0-0, Hensley 1-0-1-3, Reed 2-1-0-5, Oguama 0-0-0-0; Totals: 20-6-5-51.
Northern: Brandon 5-0-0-10, Vinson 4-1-6-15, Warrick 9-2-2-22, Rhodes 1-0-0-2, Faulkner 1-1-2-5, Robinson 2-1-0-5, Pivorius 1-1-0-3, Zorgvol 1-0-0-2, Totals: 24-6-10-64.