No. 16 Seed Norse battle to the bitter end

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Drop NCAA First Round game to top-seed Houston

I must preface this game pseudo-recap by saying this:  If you are looking for a shot-by-shot recap of last night’s NKU vs. Houston game, this may not satisfy your appetite.  Check out www.NKUNorse.com or ESPN.com for more of a nuts and bolts summary.  If you want some personal colorful commentary, metaphors and a little subtle hyperbole mixed in with raw metrics, please read on.

In the 1980s hit movie “Bull Durham,” Kevin Costner’s character named Crash Davis gives the team’s new naive rookie phenom a lesson on the difference between greatness and mediocrity in baseball.  In a now-iconic monologue, Crash tells his new protégé this: “You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits – 25 hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, okay? There’s six months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare (base hit) a week, just one…You get a ‘ground ball with eyes’. You get a dying quail – you get just one more dying quail a week, and you’re (playing) in Yankee Stadium.” 

This exact same philosophy applies to scoring in basketball – sometimes to secure a win, all it takes is a few lucky bounces here and there on a few wayward shots to dramatically turn the tide of a game.

The Northern Kentucky University Norse could have used those favorable bounces more than ever last night in Birmingham, Ala., in their First Round NCAA Tournament game against the top-seeded University of Houston Cougars.  The No. 16 seed Norse lost to the top-seeded Cougars last night, 63-52, in Birmingham’s Legacy Arena.  The arena hosted 15,154 rowdy fans who saw one of the tournament’s lowest overall seeds bully its top-ranked counterpart for the better part of 35 minutes, before the favored Cougars pulled away in the waning minutes. 

Earlier in the First Round, head coach Darrin Horn and his squad saw 15-seeded Princeton methodically slow their game down enough with No. 2 seed Arizona to drag the Wildcats into the deep end, slowly drown them and emerge victorious.  Then they saw No. 13 seed Furman save their best for the last 2.4 seconds of their game against No. 4 seed Virginia and send the Cavs home with their bags packed and tagged.  That said, the best team does NOT always win in March, however the team that plays the best game – and has a little bit of March Magic on their side – does.  

The baseball analogy above can very easily be applied to NKU’s game against Houston on Thursday night.  NKU already had the “Why not us?” mentality before the first games of the NCAA Tournament tipped off, so seeing other fellow mid-majors lay waste to Power 5 schools leading up to their matchup with No. 1 seed Houston only emboldened their belief further.  In the end, it was math that tipped the scales in Houston’s favor.  As Crash Davis alluded to in his speech above, the result of this game hinged on the ball landing just in the right place, at the right time, just enough times… for Houston to walk off the court with the win.  A couple shots here and there, a couple seeing-eye jumpers, a couple soft rim-riders that choose to gently fall in instead of out.  A three-pointer that clangs off the back of the rim, only to pop straight up and fall straight down through the awaiting nylon net.  The Norse had a razor thin margin of error against arguably the nation’s best team, and came thisclose to making history.

But as referenced above – just like baseball – basketball is a numbers game.  While final scores ultimately tell you who won the game, it’s the numbers within the numbers that ice the cake.  Field goal percentages. Steals. Assist-to-turnover ratios.  Rebounding margin.  The thinnest of numerical margins can mean the difference between the best team in the nation narrowly avoiding defeat, and the tournament’s lowest seed finding that one tiny crease to attack that can lead to an historic upset.  And in a game of said numbers, the Norse connected on only 15.2% of their three-point shots, landing just 5 of 33 treys against a team that came into the Tournament only allowing opponents to hit 28% of their shots behind the arc. 

The Norse themselves played solid defense on the night, holding the American Athletic Conference regular season champions to just 63 points, a full 13 points below their season average. In choosing to focus their offense on directly attacking Houston’s greatest strength, the Norse found points hard to come by.  Despite throwing up low-percentage shots against a team that notoriously dominates defenders behind the arc and outrebounds its foes by a +7.5 margin, the Norse knew they could lean on their 27th-ranked defense to keep the score close – and they did, all the way up to the final buzzer.

On paper prior to the game, Houston looked like the decided favorite coming in with many crucial statistical rankings that dwarfed NKU’s.  While the Cougars had a roster full of much more highly-regarded players, fans at the arena and those watching at home saw an NKU team that was overwhelmingly the aggressor that outhustled Houston for a vast majority of the game. Of particular note, NKU managed to stay level with Houston on the strength of forcing 17 turnovers – with 9 of those coming in the first half alone – against a team that only coughs up on average 9.9 turnovers a game total.

At one point Grant Hill, one of the television commentator’s for the game, said “This isn’t a normal 16 seed.  Northern Kentucky can flat out play!”  Many college hoops gurus questioned how the Norse were handed a #16 seed to begin with, while #13-15 seeds were getting trounced by 20-30 points by lesser opponents than Houston. 

The Norse were led by All-Horizon League guard Sam Vinson, who netted a team-best 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting along with his 8 rebounds, a game-high 3 steals, a block and an assist. Vinson was continually praised by the TV crew during the game, and often looked like the best player on the court from both teams. 

Wing Trey Robinson stepped up big, dumping in 11 points and snagging 3 boards. 

Departing fifth-year senior post Chris Brandon closed out his college career with a bang on national TV, scoring 6 points and hauling in 14 more rebounds against a team that does not usually lose the rebound battle. 

Transfer fifth-year senior guard Xavier Rhodes added 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 assists to round out a solid final performance.  One of Rhodes’ plays may be seen on various highlight shows the next couple days, as he used a cross-over dribble and shot that left a defender staggering and crumbling to the hardwood as he watched the long jumper hit its mark. 

Junior All-Horizon League guard Marques Warrick added 9 points to his season total.

Departing Sixth Man of the Year senior Trevon Faulkner added 3 points in his final college game, a career that saw him start in more games than any other player in NKU hoops history. 

The Norse finish the season with an overall record of 22-13 and will go into the offseason looking to fill the shoes (and stats) of departing seniors Brandon, Rhodes and Faulkner.  Houston now stands at 32-3 on the season and advance on to play #9 seed Auburn University tomorrow night in the Midwest Region round of 32.

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