NKU Men scare Houston in NCAA Tournament

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The Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team (22-13) hoped to make even more history on its trip to Birmingham, Alabama on Thursday.

The Norse made it to the NCAA Division I Tournament for the third time since moving up from Division II in 2012 and sought after their first ever NCAA tournament game win. But to do it, the Norse needed to become just the second No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in tournament history.

With Houston All-American guard Marcus Sasser out in the second half after aggravating the groin injury he suffered in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, Northern Kentucky stayed within striking distance most of the way. But the Norse fell short 63-52 to the Cougars (32-3).

“I’m unbelievably proud of our team – the fight we showed,” said Darrin Horn, Northern Kentucky head coach. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we outplayed Houston. We just didn’t make enough shots.”

The Norse led 12-9 with 12:29 left after forward Chris Brandon made a lay-up. The teams battled back and forth the rest of the half with Houston leading 30-27 at halftime. The game had seven lead changes and eight ties in the first half.

Northern Kentucky tied the game at 36 with 15:44 left when junior guard Marques Warrick made two free throws. But Houston took the lead for good with 13:56 left in the game when junior guard Jamal Shead hit a three. Houston led 41-38 with 11:51 left before using a 6-0 run to go up 47-40 with 10:26 remaining.

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The Norse kept battling. Houston increased the lead to 10 at 53-43 with 7:07 left after a Shead jumper. But Northern Kentucky trimmed it to five twice, including the 3:36 mark after a Warrick free throw at 55-50. But Houston outscored Northern Kentucky, 8-2 after that point to pull away.

Northern Kentucky sophomore Sam Vinson put up a team-best 15 points making 7-of-15 shots to go with eight rebounds, three steals, one block and one assist. Vinson ranked among the national leaders in steals finishing with 73. That is the third most in one season in program history.

“It was frustrating a little bit, but we didn’t think about that during the game,” Vinson said of his shooting. “The coaches keep saying, ‘Shoot the ball. Shoot the ball.”

Junior Trey Robinson had 11 points, three rebounds, one assist and one steal for the Norse. Brandon had 14 rebounds to go with six points and two assists. The Houston native finished with the most rebounds in a season in program history with 333 including 131 on the offensive glass.

Houston held Warrick and Trevon Faulkner below their season averages of 18.8 and 8.4 points per game to nine and three points, respectively. Warrick still finished the season with 650 points good for second all-time in program history for one season. Fifth-year guard Xavier Rhodes added eight points, five rebounds, two steals and two assists.

Houston won the rebounding battle, 42-33. But the Norse had 18 offensive rebounds to 11 for the Cougars outscoring Houston, 21-10 in second-chance points.

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Houston ranked 14th in the country taking care of the basketball averaging 9.9 turnovers a game. But the Norse forced 17 with nine coming in the first half.

What ultimately hurt the Norse was outside shooting, making just 5-of-34 from three-point range.

The Cougars put four players in double figures. Freshman forward Jarace Walker led the way with 16 and Shead had 13. Redshirt junior forward J’wan Roberts and redshirt freshman guard Emanuel Sharp followed with 11 and 10 respectively. Sasser scored five points playing 14 minutes in the first half.

Houston also struggled from the perimeter, hitting just 4-of-16 from beyond the arc.

“I don’t coach Northern Kentucky. But I was proud of their team,” said Kelvin Sampson, Houston head coach. “They fought. Their kids are tough. They’re smart.”

Northern Kentucky has won the Horizon League Tournament four times since joining in 2015. The Norse finished NCAA Division II national runner-up in 1996 and 1997 under legendary head coach Ken Shields.

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