#HLMBB Finals – Norse punches their ticket

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Photo by Matt Dudek

As far as the finals of the Horizon League tournament is concerned, you couldn’t have picked a more even match-up between Cleveland State and Northern Kentucky. While their respective journeys were quite different, both the Vikings and the Norse cam into the championship sporting 21-12 records. They also split their regular-season series and in their respective semifinals matchups, staved off second-half runs by their higher-seeded opponents to prevail.

And for a considerable portion of the finals, these two teams were as evenly matched as could be. But in the end, there could be only one Horizon League champion, or, to play off of their mascots, there could only be one King of the North.

That that King…is Northern Kentucky, finishing off Cleveland State, 63-61, to win the Horizon League Tournament and get the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It will be the first time that the Norse have won the tourney since 2020, and because COVID cancelled that edition of March Madness, this will be Darrin Horn’s first foray into the NCAAs as NKU’s coach.

“We knew coming into the game that it was going to be a war and a very difficult game and back and forth, and that’s exactly how it played out,” said Horn. “The message to our guys was stay aggressive on both ends. The team that’s most aggressive has the best chance, and that’s stepping in and shooting shots and making plays on offense. I really thought that was the difference.”

“I have a ton of respect for their program and how Darrin (Horn) does it,” said CSU head coach Daniyal Robinson. “This teams plays really hard, and as you saw tonight, they play the right way. And they won tonight.”

As to the aggressiveness on offense, as Horn alluded to, the Norse were led, as they have been throughout the season, by Marques Warrick, who was named the tournament’s MVP, and Sam Vinson, who joined Warrick on the All-Tournament team along with their NKU teammate Chris Brandon, Cleveland State’s Tristan Enaruna, who finished the final contest with 17 rebounds, and Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis.

For Warrick and Vinson, who led the Norse with 18 and 16 points, respectively,

“It’s the championship game; it’s where stars and big players make big plays, especially coming down the stretch,” Warrick said. “And we knew, me and Sam (Vinson) did, with the ball in our hands, whatever action it was, we stayed poised and confident.”

“My team needs me, Marques (Warrick) will go out there and make big plays, and when I see ‘Ques go make a big play, it gets me going to,” Vinson added. “And he sees me make a big play, it gets him going. So, we kind of just feed off each other, and we’re just looking for shots, getting our actions going, and finding open shots.”

In the first half of the contest, it seemed as is neither team could truly get clear of each other, with the largest leads being a miniscule four for the Vikings, which happened with 8:19 left in the half thanks to an Enaruna layup, and three for NKU, which occurred at the end of the half thanks to a pair of Warrick free throws.

That small edge disappeared within the first minute and a half of the second half, when Deshon Parker drained a three-pointer with time expiring on the shot clock. From there, it was back to the grind for both teams, including stretches where neither could hit a field goal.

But the Norse had created cushions for themselves during the droughts, which included a seven-point advantage, courtesy of a three-pointer by Trey Robinson with 10:20 left. Cleveland State tried chipping away, and, with another Parker trey, cut the lead to 52-50 with 4:55 remaining.

However, that would be the closest that the Vikings would get for the remainder of the game, as the Norse used their defensive power to keep CSU at bay. A Drew Lowder three-pointer reduced the Viking deficit to 63-61, but with only 0.2 seconds left in the game, time had run out.

With the win and the automatic bid secured, Northern Kentucky awaits Selection Sunday to find out the location and opponent for its first contest. As for the Cleveland State, it appears that the season will conclude, finishing at 21-13, marking the second year in a row that the Vikings have won 20 games and the first time in CSU history that a first-year head coach had hit that win mark.

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