NKU alone atop Horizon heading into rematch with Milwaukee

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NKU is heading into the final weekend of January in sole possession of first place in the Horizon League.

“Still at the top of the league, but we’re not satisfied at all,” said NKU junior guard Marques Warrick. “We practice every day like it’s going to be our last game going into it. So, that’s the mindset we have to have, especially into February and conference tournament. We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot every game from here on out. So, we just have to stay focused.”

NKU and Milwaukee were tied atop the standings entering Thursday night’s conference contests. With Green Bay at NKU and Milwaukee at Wright State as the lone league games on the docket, the expectation existed for a showdown between the Horizon’s co-leaders on Saturday when the Norse host the Panthers, as was the case when they met in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago.

NKU took care of business by beating visiting Green Bay, 68-50. The Panthers, however, were unable to remove the thorn in their paw that is Wright State, suffering their second loss to the Raiders in 12 days.

This time, a 93-86 defeat in Dayton, a score not indicative of Wright State’s dominant performance throughout much of the game. Milwaukee’s only home loss in league play came against Wright State, 78-74, in overtime on January 14.

Thursday was a prime opportunity for NKU to stumble, too – fully aware a rematch with Milwaukee was less than 48 hours away and facing a 2-19 Green Bay squad that had just fired its coach on Tuesday.

Following an 11th straight loss, the Phoenix parted ways with head man Will Ryan, son of former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.

“Really pleased with our guys’ effort and focus tonight,” said NKU head coach Darrin Horn. “These are the kind of games where you’re playing a team whose record’s not good. Obviously, they’ve had some turmoil this week in their program. And you know, there’s a big game Saturday. So, how are you going to be? How are you going to approach a game like tonight? And I thought from start to finish our guys really had a terrific approach to this game on both ends of the floor.”

Marques Warrick led the way for the Norse with 18 points, Sam Vinson right behind with 17 points, to go with a team-high four assists. Xavier Rhodes, who was celebrating his 23rd birthday, had 11 points and five steals.

Horn noted that in the win over Green Bay, he continues to see his team’s confidence grow – especially with Sam Vinson.

“He’s kind of got his swag back, right? He’s playing with that ‘Sam’ confidence that we kind of became accustomed to last year, which was so impressive when he was a freshman,” Horn said. “So much of the game offensively for guys is getting comfortable and confident, having an understanding of getting to their shots and their spots, like you hear NBA guys talk about. I just think that’s happening for him. He’s living in the moment, not worrying about the last play, good or bad. We’re a much different team when Sam Vinson is playing at the level offensively that he is right now.”

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Vinson has averaged nearly 16 points per outing over his last four games after averaging nine-and-a-half through his first 15. He had just four points in NKU’s 80-75 loss at Milwaukee on Jan. 12.

“I mean it feels good to be in first place, top of the league, but like Marques said, we’re not satisfied at all,” Vinson said. “We want to go win the rest of these games in the league. And we owe Milwaukee one since they beat us at their place. So, we’re coming in there, minds ready to go, going to be aggressive, come out there swinging on them. And hopefully come out with a big W.”

In that initial meeting with Milwaukee, what kept the Norse in that game was the difference in Thursday’s win over Green Bay: Turnovers. They scored 31 points off 19 Phoenix miscues. Against Milwaukee, NKU had 27 points on 22 Panthers’ turnovers.
NKU leads the league in turnovers forced (16.9 per game), turnover margin (4.86 per game) and steals (9.77 per game). NKU has 50 more steals than the next closest team in the league – 215 to Youngstown State’s 165. The Norse also lead the Horizon in scoring defense, allowing 63 points per game.

Defense is this team’s identity.

“It’s big every night for us, in large part, because we’re not an offensive juggernaut. We’re not a team that just by the nature of our personnel is going to go hang 85 on a night that we play well and shoot the ball well,” Horn said. “I think it’s really important for our guys, for this team in particular, because it’s who we need to be to be our best. As a coach, ultimately, what you’re trying to get to is that they see that, and they’re doing it
because of their buy in and their belief. It’s great for me to believe something, but when they start to see it, buy into themselves and believe in it, it’s a gamechanger. And that’s starting to happen with this team. Now the challenge is can we not rest on that and continue to make shots.”

That game against Milwaukee was very unlike NKU. The Panthers put up 80 points and shot 55.3% – the best field goal percentage an opponent has had against NKU all season. Milwaukee also shot 47.8% from three (11-of-23), while NKU was 7-of-34 from deep for 20.6%, its most attempts and second-worst percentage from beyond the arc this season.

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Warrick was asked if he and his teammates take that kind of hit to their defense personally.

“We do. We just didn’t come ready that game to compete on the defensive end. That’s why we gave up a lot of shots. They made them. You know, credit them, but we just didn’t come ready to compete,” Warrick said. “We’re definitely going to make sure that this time we will.”

Rhodes echoed Warrick’s sentiments.

“We owe them one. We’re going to be ready from the get-go,” Rhodes said. “It’s going to be a battle for the full 40 minutes. They’re going to give us their best shot, too.”

One of the biggest challenges will be defending BJ Freeman. He had 28 points the last time the two teams met, which began a streak that is now at five straight games in which Freeman’s had 20 or more points. He had 26 in the loss to Wright State Thursday.
The Panthers are prolific on defense, as well. They lead the league in field goal percentage defense (39.5%), rebounding, defensive rebounding and blocked shots, which at 5.9 per game ranks among the top ten nationally. Milwaukee’s 124 blocks are 50 more than the next closest in the league. The Panthers Ahmad Rand, a 6-foot-8 senior, leads the Horizon with 2.2 blocks per game, while teammate Moses Bol, a 7-foot-1 grad transfer, is tied for second at 1.2 per game.

First place will still be on the line when Milwaukee meets NKU on Saturday at 4 p.m., but a tie for the league lead is the best the Panthers can do. The best of the rest in the Horizon – Cleveland State, Oakland and Youngstown State – have the same potential to come out of the weekend tied for first in the standings.

Northern Kentucky is alone in its opportunity to own the league’s best record when all is said and done on Sunday. Win, and the Norse would be 10-2 in the Horizon. Lose, and Milwaukee would regain a share of first, but there could be company. The possibility is there for a four-way tie for first place. Cleveland State, Oakland and Youngstown State are all 7-3 in league play going into Friday night’s slate of games. Oakland is at Youngstown State. The winner of that game could come out of the weekend at 9-3. Both schools play again on Sunday against teams that are below .500 in league play. Oakland is at
Robert Morris, which is 4-6 going into its game Friday against Detroit, also 4-6. Youngstown State hosts Detroit on Sunday. Cleveland State hosts Purdue Fort Wayne (6-5) on Friday. Should the Vikings win, they would have a chance to move to 9-3 with a win on Sunday against visiting IUPUI, which is 0-11 in league play.

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Beat Milwaukee Saturday, and NKU will have at least a one-game lead on the rest of the Horizon heading into February. The importance of this game for NKU cannot be overstated because the Horizon League did the Norse no favors in scheduling. NKU closes out the final month of the regular season playing seven of its eight remaining games on the road. From February 2 through February 25, NKU will play all but one game on an opponent’s home floor. That includes road games against the aforementioned top contenders:
Youngstown State on Feb. 4, Cleveland State on Feb. 19 and Oakland to wrap it up.
You may remember the Norse needed a buzzer-beater to get by Cleveland State in Truist Arena last Thursday. NKU hosted Oakland on Jan. 6 and led by seven with 1:35 to play but ended up losing by one. Youngstown State was a four-point home win way back on Dec. 1.

The gauntlet begins Saturday against Milwaukee, truly the last big home game of the season. The only other opportunity to see the Norse at home this season comes against lowly IUPUI on Feb. 12.

Warrick explained the value of having the Norse nation out in full force for Milwaukee.

“They’re our backbone. We need them to come out to every single game, including the students,” he said. “We need that energy from the crowd to get us going. We’ll provide the energy on the court, but we need them to back us up. We’re definitely going to need them on Saturday.”

Horn is hopeful Saturday’s homecoming crowd can rival what he witnessed back on Nov. 16 when the Cincinnati Bearcats were in the building.

“We hope it’s a Cincinnati-like atmosphere. As you heard our guys say, it means so much to them when the building’s full and it’s rocking. It’s a big game, but regardless of where you are right now, you want to finish first at the end of the year. I think it’s more than that. It’s a league game. And with the schedule we’ve been given by the Horizon League, it’s one of our last two home games,” Horn said.

“So, a big crowd Saturday would go a long way towards helping our guys play well and try to get a win against a really good Milwaukee team.”

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