Norse return to win column after poor showing in Florida

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Warrick pops off for 45 points against Tennessee Tech

After a staggeringly unsuccessful showing at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida last week, it appears all Northern Kentucky (3-4, 0-0 HL) needed was a return to the friendly home confines of Truist Arena to halt its losing streak at three games. 

Working with a limited roster due to injury and illness, coach Darrin Horn led the Norse to a thrilling 85-77 double-overtime win over a gamely Tennessee Tech squad.  Junior guard Marques Warrick caught fire early and often and went on to score a career-best 45 points on the night, accounting for 53% of his team’s scoring output in the win.  But let’s stick a pin in that for a moment and come back to that shortly.  To set the stage a bit, let’s first talk about what happened before Sunday’s win over Tennessee Tech. 

Northern Kentucky appeared to be riding a wave of optimism going into the early season tournament hosted by former Atlantic Sun foe Florida Gulf Coast University, following its 64-51 win over cross-river rival University of Cincinnati earlier in the month.  With the bitter sting of the season opening loss to Kent State still fresh on the minds of many, the win over UC seemingly served as a healing salve to reorient the team and reenergize the loyal fan base.  If NKU shocking the Bearcats at home gave the program a sudden and needed jumpstart, the Norse performance in Florida provided a completely antithetical result. 

NKU entered the tourney – comprised of predominantly strong fellow mid-major opponents – looking to show that its 13-point win over UC was no fluke, while proving itself to be one of the nation’s top tier mid-major programs.  What it left Florida with was back-to-back-to-back losses to host Florida Gulf Coast (3-2), University of Texas-Arlington (3-3) and University of Toledo (4-2).  To be fair, Northern Kentucky found itself up against quality opponents who have all achieved recent success of one kind or another.  

The Norse dropped their first game of the tourney to host FGCU, 82-61, who defeated the PAC-12’s University of Southern California by 13 points in Los Angeles to start the season.  Last season, the Eagles finished 22-12 and played in the post-season, advancing to the semifinals of The Basketball Classic before bowing out to eventual TBC champion Fresno State.  FGCU went undefeated in their tournament and went on to claim the tourney title. 

Game two found NKU dropping a close game to the WAC’s UT-Arlington, 60-56.  Earlier in the season, the Mavericks went punch for punch with the Big 12 ‘s Oklahoma State (now 5-2) before falling late in Stillwater, 77-66.  The Cowboys didn’t make the post-season last year, but they did finish their 2021-22 campaign with big wins over No. 1 Baylor, No. 12 Texas Tech and No. 14 Texas.

Northern Kentucky completed its winless trip to Florida with an 82-69 loss to Toledo.  The Rockets came into the 2022-23 season favored to win the MAC after finishing 26-8 last season and accepting a bid to the National Invitational Tournament.

Most troubling for the experienced, veteran-led Norse in the Gulf Coast Showcase was both the inability to score and rebound against teams of equal caliber that looked more prepared to play three games in three straight days.  In the tourney, NKU averaged only 62 points per contest while shooting 41% from the field, 34% from behind the arc and only 62.5% from the free throw line.  Most glaring though was they were heavily outrebounded in all three games, and finished with a total rebounding deficit of -26 (109 to 83) against their opponents.

After the tournament, Horn allowed that he was having trouble getting complete “buy-in” from multiple players on the roster and he would be committing himself to shaking up the lineup in upcoming games.  Fast forward to Sunday afternoon’s tilt against the visiting Tennessee Tech of the Ohio Valley Conference.  The Golden Eagles came into the contest evened up at 3-3 on the season, with two of those three wins coming over small, private NAIA schools. 

What the crowd of 2,267 fans saw at Truist Arena was a game for the ages as guard Marques Warrick scorched the nets for a career high 45 points on 58% shooting from the field (18 of 31), while hitting five of 10 shots from behind the arc to go along with his four rebounds, four assists and two steals. 

Due to the illness of transfer senior point guard Xavier Rhodes, Horn started walk-on point guard Jake Evans who finished with three steals along with seven assists to no turnovers.  Reigning Freshman of the Year Sam Vinson’s nagging ankle injury kept him out of Sunday’s lineup, so sophomore guard Hubie Pivorius got his first starting nod of the season and added four assists while pouring in 16 points – 12 of those coming from long range. 

Forward Chris Brandon owned the glass in the contest, dragging down a career high 19 rebounds while also chipping in six points of his own along with his four steals and three assists.  Through seven games this season, Brandon leads the conference in rebounding with 12.4 boards per game, a full 2.5 per contest ahead of former Northern Kentucky and current Youngstown State player Adrian Nelson’s 9.9 rpg.  It also moves Brandon up to second in the nation in rebounds per game, a hair behind St. John’s (NY) center Joel Soriano (12.7 rpg).     

Warrick’s 45 points represents the highest individual scoring output in a game by any Horizon League player this season and moves him up into the #2 spot in the HL’s scoring leaders with 21.6 points per game – as well No. 11 in the nation – behind scoring leader Antoine Davis of Detroit Mercy (23.3 ppg – 2nd in the nation). The Norse have very little time to savor this win as they host HL rival Youngstown State on Thursday, December 1 with a 7:00pm tipoff.  Horizon League fans won’t want to miss out of this one, as Adrian Nelson makes his first return back to Highland Heights since transferring to YSU for his final college season.

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