The Northern Kentucky women’s basketball team (9-5, 3-2) did not want to put itself in a tough spot with a sub-.500 record in Horizon League play.
The Norse found themselves in that spot at halftime trailing the Milwaukee Panthers (5-8, 3-2) 26-16 on Thursday at Truist Arena. NKU had just six made field goals at the break.
But that changed in the second half as Northern Kentucky shot much better outscoring the visitors, 50-34 to on its way to a 66-60 Horizon League victory.
The game saw its typical number of calls go in favor of and against each team. Milwaukee finished with 18 fouls and Northern Kentucky had 17. But the Norse weathered the storm.
“The girls yell at me in practice when I don’t give them the right call,” said Camryn Whitaker, Northern Kentucky head coach. “But honestly, we talk a lot about in general, if you miss a shot, have a turnover, if you foul, the next play. I actually told them in one of the huddles, ‘If you want to get the calls, you have to make contact on the box out and push them back and then they’ll call if it they come over our back.’ I also told them to forget about it. Just go play. You can not think about that. You have no control over it. If we play how we know we’re capable of playing, then none of that stuff matters.”
After just the six made field goals in the first half, NKU went 17-for-30 in the second half. Defense was key, the Norse outscored the Panthers 20-4 in points off turnovers recording seven steals off 14 Milwaukee turnovers while yielding four steals off just eight turnovers.
Northern Kentucky also distributed the ball better with 15 assists to 10 for Milwaukee. Sophomore guard Khamari Mitchell-Steen led the Norse with six assists. Whitaker credited Mitchell-Steen for her defense.
The Norse displayed a nice inside-outside game in this one with the five starters scoring at least six points. Sophomore guard Kailee Davis led the way making a career-high five 3-pointers. Davis also took a career-high 18 field goal tries.
“Our posts really draw a lot of attention and they’re great passers,” Davis said. “I think if we keep working on our movement on the perimeter, it really opens everything up for us, especially if we look for the post first.”
Graduate student center/forward Emmy Souder posted her second double-double of the year with 14 points and 10 rebounds and senior guard Ivy Turner scored 13 for the Norse. Milwaukee held Northern Kentucky graduate student guard Lindsey Duvall to six points including none in the first half. But Duvall still grabbed eight rebounds.
The Panthers have size led by two seniors in the 6-3 Preseason All-Horizon League First Team center/forward Emma Wittmershaus and 6-2 forward Megan Walstad. Wittmershaus finished with nine points and eight rebounds and Walstad had six points and 12 rebounds. Milwaukee won the rebounding battle, 42-37 including 12-9 on the offensive glass, but only outscored Northern Kentucky, 15-12 in second-chance points.
“What makes them a challenge is they can play inside and out,” Whitaker said. “Although we didn’t really see it much (Thursday), they can shoot the three. So when you’re preparing for that team, you’ve got to think about those things. We know that they like to post up so we spend a lot of time trying to defend the post stuff, working on doubling and working on our zone a little bit trying to keep it out of the paint. I know they’re team is a little bit down now. But I expect those two to have good years.”
The two made it difficult for the Norse to finish in the paint, especially in the first half. But Walstad fouled out with 5:37 left in the game.
Northern Kentucky had to double a good bit in the post leaving things open for Milwaukee on the outside. Sophomore guard Kendall Nead led the Panthers with 19 points and freshman guard Kamy Peppler scored 16.
Northern Kentucky made its run in the third quarter tying the game at 29 with 4:04 left when Mitchell-Steen scored in the middle. Turner hit a three-pointer with 2:44 left to put the Norse up for good at 32-31 before Mitchell-Steen recorded an open-court steal and score. The Norse led 39-37 entering the fourth quarter.
“I’m just really proud with how we came out in the third quarter,” Whitaker said. “Third quarters have been a challenge for us. I told the team at halftime I’m not going to get upset. I’m not going to yell. But you guys have to make the choice and they did. I challenged (Davis) this week. I said, ‘We go as you go.’ Number one, I have a lot of faith in her. Number two, it’s her responsibility to this team. That is a lot of responsibility for a sophomore. But she can handle it. I’m really proud of how she responded.”
The Norse made sure the game did not come down to the final minutes. Up 42-40, Davis made consecutive triples to give Northern Kentucky a 48-40 lead with 7:19 left in the game.
Northern Kentucky extended the led to double-figures with 5:20 left when the 6-foot-1 Souder hit a surprise three-pointer from the left corner. Souder only attempted four three-point tries prior to that attempt making one on the season. Souder then made a crucial three-point play with 2:42 left in the game to put Northern Kentucky up 60-49.
“I practice those shots every single day in practice,” Souder said. “So when I’m given the opportunity, I try to excel in that. (The team) put me in that position and (Milwaukee) decided to leave me open so I just tried to knock it down and made a nice play.”
Milwaukee cut the lead to 60-53. But Duvall hit a three-point play to extend the lead back to double figures at 63-53 with 1:31 left in the game.
Northern Kentucky plays host to Green Bay (11-3) on Saturday at 2 p.m. The Phoenix are 4-1 in Horizon League play.