Northern Kentucky was a single shot away from making the NCAA Tournament last year, so the stakes to win the Horizon League tournament, even as the No. 4 seed, couldn’t be higher. And in facing the top-seeded Youngstown State, the Norse knew what they were up against.
That didn’t phase NKU, though, as the Norse survived a second-half Penguin onslaught to come away victorious, 75-63, fueled by the scoring of their stars, Marques Warrick and Sam Vinson, and dominance on the glass of Chris Brandon, who finished the game with 17 rebounds.
“I think part of the big part of their composure is that we’ve had several games like it this year, and sometimes they didn’t do a great job,” NKU head coach Darrin Horn said. “But look at the guys who finished the game for us, and all of those guys in the championship last year. A bunch of them were in the semifinals the year before and in the COVID year, and so, we’ve got quite a bit of experience in out there in that situation. I just think there’s a different confidence level.”
“I think experience is huge in this environment, no doubt about it,” YSU head coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “They lost a very, very tough game last year. I knew as a coach what we were up against. I just we played a little better. It’s one thing to lose, but to not play your best, I think that’s what tough. We’re certainly better than what we showed, but you’ve to give those guys credit.”
Cleveland State, on the other hand, faced a Milwaukee team that bested them twice in the regular season, the second time of which cost the Vikings a share of the conference crown. Add to the intrigue was the battle of a pair of first-year coaches, Daniyal Robinson and Bart Lundy, who’ve helmed outstanding seasons for their respective squads.
This time around, though, it was Robinson’s Cleveland State team that prevailed waylaying the Panthers in the paint and withstanding a Milwaukee run, as well as holding BJ Freeman at bay, to punch their ticket to the finals, becoming the only school whose both men’s and women’s basketball teams reached the Horizon League championship game this year.
“Our guys came out with an edge,” Robinson said. “Really, really proud of how they came out, playing together, taking the game plan, implement it, put it into the game, and then specifically Tae Williams was unbelievable tonight on the defensive end. He had the tough defensive assignment of guarding Freeman. Freeman went wild on us the last two games, averaging 27 points a game, but Tae Williams specifically was unbelievable defensive and then offensively.”
“We were really motivated in the quarterfinal against a team that had beaten us twice,” Milwaukee head coach Bart Lundy said. “And I think that script was flipped on us tonight. College basketball is a funny thing. It’s energy. It’s motion. It’s motivation. I think from a basketball perspective, I was disappointed in that some of our systems failed.”
Northern Kentucky exerted its will in the first half, with Marques Warrick scoring 16 first-half points, including three as a result of getting fouled behind the line. In total, scored 11 points off of turnovers while the Norse themselves only committed a single miscue. At the half, it looked like it was all NKU, putting together a 40-25 advantage.
All looked lost for the Penguins to start the second half, scoring only two points before the under-15 break in the second half, letting the Norse get a 47-27 advantage. Youngstown State wouldn’t go away quietly, though, cutting the lead to 53-46 with 8:14 left, while holding Warrick scoreless.
With Dwayne Cohill fouling out with five minutes, left, however, it stopped the Penguins, who had cut the lead to four, dead in their tracks, and Northern Kentucky preserved the win.
Warrick finished with 22 points to lead the Norse. Sam Vinson added 17 points. Cohill finished with 16 points, Adrian Nelson had 17 to go with 13 boards, and Malek Green, who was hampered with an ankle injury for most of the second half, chipping in 10 for the Penguins, who, as the regular season Horizon League champs, will make their next stop with the NIT.
For the Vikings, they ran out to a fast 20-5 start, half of which came from Williams. The Panthers struggled to come back, and found themselves down by as much as 24, courtesy of a Ramar Pryor layup.
The Cleveland State lead ballooned to as much as 28, when Milwaukee began applying an effective full-court press on defense, which allowed the Panthers to get critical points off of turnovers. That, coupled with Tristan Enaruna’s foul troubles that kept him on the bench for an extended period, resulted in Milwaukee cutting the Viking advantage to nine with 6:07 left in the game.
Williams, however, would have none of it, and hammered home a dunk that, thanks to a foul by Justin Thomas, turned into an and-one opportunity. Williams cashed that in, and once Enaruna returned to the floor, Cleveland State held the Panthers at arm’s length for the remainder of the contest.
The Vikings were led by Enaruna, who, in spite of being limited 25 minutes due to fouls, finished with 24 points. He was joined by Williams, who scored 18, Deante “Spider” Johnson, who notched a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Yahel Hill, who added 11.
Milwaukee, who, per Lundy, have accepted an invitation to the CBI, were led by Jalen Johnson, who scored 24 points in front of the crowd in his hometown of Indianapolis, and Freeman, who finished with 19.