VINDICATED: NKU seals the deal this time in Horizon, headed to NCAA Tournament

More by....

Junior guard Marques Warrick summed it up best for the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team.

The team’s leading scorer said the trip to redemption started June 1, 2022 with summer workouts. The Norse wanted to make it back to the Horizon League title game and win it after last year’s tough loss to Wright State where they led most of the game, but lost 72-71 with a bad stretch at the end and missed the NCAA Tournament. But the Norse knew they’d receive the best shots from the other 10 Horizon League teams.

The Norse (22-12) survived the ups and downs of the regular season posting a 14-6 record in Horizon League play to earn the fourth seed. They knocked off Oakland in the quarterfinals then top-seeded Youngstown State in the semifinals to make it back to that spot. This time, the Norse made the plays to knock off the third-seeded Cleveland State Vikings (21-13), 63-61 in the championship game Tuesday at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.

“It was just unfinished business,” Warrick said. “We came in with a chip on our shoulder. We knew we had a good group of guys come in and a lot of guys returning. We knew we were going to be at the top of the league. But that didn’t really matter until March. We worked our tails (off) all year.”

Northern Kentucky head coach Darrin Horn said he’s not thought nearly as much about last year as the players did. But he hated telling the Norse they could not play in the NCAA Tournament in 2020 as a result of the COVID pandemic after winning the Horizon League Tournament.

“I’d like to start off by congratulating Northern Kentucky,” said Daniyal Robinson, Cleveland State head coach. “I have a ton of respect for their program how Darrin does it. His team plays really hard. As you saw (Tuesday), they play the right way and won. To our group, I’m just real proud of this group. They laid their heart out there like they do on a nigh-to-night basis. I want to thank each and every one of them, especially the seniors. These guys when I came in were not having any experience and they bought in to what we wanted them to do. Although we fell short, these guys made a ton of people proud. They’re winners.”

More news:  Kentucky Symphony Orchestra announces 2023 Summer Park Series

Northern Kentucky tried to be aggressive on both ends of the floor, especially in the transition game after Cleveland State ran up and down the floor Monday in the semifinal win over Milwaukee. The Norse recorded 14 steals off 17 Vikings turnovers while yielding four steals off 10 turnovers outscoring the Vikings, 21-7 off those turnovers.

“Defensively, we just wanted to limit them,” Warrick said. “They got a lot of layups (Monday), especially in transition. That definitely starts with stops. For us getting out in transition is one of our game goals every single game.”

Warrick and sophomore point guard Sam Vinson had three steals each to lead the way. The other three starters in fifth-year forward Chris Brandon, junior guard Trey Robinson and fifth-year guard Xavier Rhodes had two each.

The Norse had six different players score with three hitting double digits. Warrick led the way scoring 18 points and Vinson added 16 with Robinson scoring 12.

“We knew coming into the game it was going to be a war in a difficult back-and forth game,” Horn said. “That’s exactly how it played out. I’m just really, really happy for our players. You have a guy like fifth-year senior Trevon Faulkner. There aren’t many guys who would come back in his situation. But he came back just to play with his teammates and try to win again. Even fewer would have come off the bench. I’m also real happy for our fans. We had a terrific turnout and they were rowdy so thank you to the Norse Nation that came out and supported us. I’m thrilled to call these guys champions because we’ve believed from day one that’s what they are.”

More news:  Series-saving rally, three Washington ejections in second game highlight Y'alls third series win of season
The Northern Kentucky University Norse men’s basketball team celebrates its fourth Horizon League Tournament crown along with the cheerleaders and dance team members since joining the league in 2015. Photo provided | NKU Athletics

Northern Kentucky helped get separation at the free throw line, making 16-of-18 attempts to the Vikings at just 5-of-10.

“All the hard work paid off,” Vinson said. “We started it in the summer time and all fall long getting after it getting extra work, extra shots with the coaches. So to see it all finally pay off and come out on top in the (Horizon) League, it feels amazing.”

Cleveland State won the rebounding battle, 37-29 including a 16-10 advantage on the offensive glass and had 16 assists to five for Northern Kentucky. Senior 6-9 forward Deante Johnson led the Vikings with 10 rebounds and Brandon had nine to lead the Norse. But the Vikings only outscored the Norse, 15-12 in second-chance points.

But Northern Kentucky had seven blocks to two for Cleveland State. Robinson had three and Brandon two for the Norse.

Junior forward Tristan Enaruna made a lot of jump shots to lead the Vikings with 17 points and senior guard Deshon Parker had 14. But Enaruna missed some jumpers down the stretch.

“I don’t know – prayed harder I guess,” Horn said of defending Enaruna. “Tristan Enaruna can really play. He’s a real match-up nightmare. I thought we were real aggressive with him. But some of the shots he hit, we have to live with. He’s that good of a player.”

The game had 14 lead changes and 12 ties. Neither team led by more than four points in the first half. Robinson hit a three with 53 seconds left and Vinson made two free throws with 31 seconds left to put Northern Kentucky up 33-30 at halftime.

Brandon put Northern Kentucky up for good with 13:43 left in the second half at 45-44 with a lay-up. The Norse then extended it to 52-45 with 10:20 left when Robinson made a three.

More news:  LINK nky Daily Headlines: Friday, June 2, 2023

The Norse did not score again until the 3:56 mark when Robinson hit a turn-around jumper to put the Norse up 54-50 after Cleveland State cut it to two. Robinson and Brandon had big blocks in the next minute before Vinson made a pull-up jumper with 2:45 left making it 56-50 Norse.

With 2:25 left, Cleveland State senior guard Yahel Hill made a three to cut the Norse lead to 56-53. But Rhodes answered with a three with 1:52 left to put the Norse back up six at 59-53.

Hill drew a shooting foul at the other end making the first then missing the second. But Johnson put in the offensive rebound to cut the Norse lead to 59-56 with 1:26 left.

After a Norse miss, Cleveland State had a chance to tie the game. But Enaruma’s jumper did not go and Brandon grabbed the rebound. Warrick made four free throws over the next seven seconds to make it 63-56 Norse.

Northern Kentucky University junior guard Marques Warrick (3) puts up a shot on Cleveland State junior Tae Williams (1) in the Horizon League championship in Indianapolis on Tuesday. Warrick hit 11 of 13 free throws on his way to a game-high 18 points in the Norse win. Photo provided | NKU Athletics

“Our team needs Marques and I to make big plays,” Vinson said. “When I see ‘Ques make a big play, it gets me going, too. When he sees me make a big play, it gets him going so we kind of just feed off each other. We’re just looking for shots, getting our actions going and just find open shots.”

The Vikings trimmed the lead to 63-58 with 10 seconds left after a Parker lay-up. Then after a Northern Kentucky missed free throw, Cleveland State junior Drew Lowder hit a three with .2 seconds left to make the final score. After a timeout, Northern Kentucky inbounded the ball successfully to end the game.

Northern Kentucky has won the Horizon League Tournament four times since joining in 2015, also winning in 2017 and 2019.

Horn said the Norse will probably enter the NCAA Tournament as a 15 or 16 seed. Northern Kentucky will know where it is headed with the selection show Sunday.

More articles

Latest articles

In Case You Missed It