Norse look to repeat Cross-River Rivalry upset

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Photo courtesy of Northern Kentucky Athletics

Cincy too much, sinks NKU 90-66

Last season, in the first game of a three-game series contract with cross-river rival University of Cincinnati, the Norse defended Truist Arena admirably in a 64-51 home win that shocked the college basketball world. 

That was then, this is now.  On Sunday afternoon at UC’s Fifth Third Arena, what visiting Norse fans were hoping would be a commanding repeat performance against their now-Big 12 foe…was anything but that.  The Norse were scorched by the Bearcats, 90-66, in front of a mixed crowd of 10,018 predominately Bearcat fans.

Bearcats Head Coach Wes Miller and his squad imposed their will on the Norse all night while graciously spreading out playing time to a deep and talented roster, with substantial contributions from both starters and bench players alike.  The Bearcats scored 40 points alone from their bench, with sophomore guard Dan Skillings, Jr. accounting for 25 of those on 8-of-12 shooting from the field.  The 6’6” guard from Blackwood, NJ was rated as the nation’s #41 hoops prospect prior to joining Miller’s squad last season as a true freshman. 

The Bearcats only had one player log 30 minutes or more Sunday, with 6-11 redshirt junior forward Viktor Lakhin accumulating 14 points, 14 rebounds and three assists in his 30 minutes of action.  Junior college transfer Day Day Thomas (20 points – 3 rebounds – 2 assists) also gave the Norse fits all game, shooting 8-of-11 from the field in his 24 minutes of play. The speedy junior guard – rated as the nation’s #4 JUCO prospect before signing with UC – is now averaging 14.3 points per game this season.

NKU head coach Darrin Horn’s squad led the Bearcats at the 13:50 point in the first half, 12-9, but lost the advantage shortly after and never managed to claw their way back into the lead the rest of the way out.  The Norse managed to trim the Bearcats’ gap to a two-possession game with 2:47 left in the first half, but the home team tightly gripped the reins and finished out the first half on a tear, resulting in a 45-31 lead at the half.

The visitors found the second half equally challenging, as the Bearcats stormed their way out to a 20 point lead at the 13:23 mark and continued to hold off any momentum swings from the Norse. 

The Norse were led in scoring by senior guard Marques Warrick, who netted 19 points on the day while shooting 44% from the field (7-of-16)  and 4-of-5 from the foul line.  The Lexington, KY native also added three rebounds and two assists to his line in his 31 minutes on the court. 

Junior guard Sam Vinson (15 points – 4 rebounds – 2 assists – 2 steals) continued his solid play on the season against quality opponents, shooting 39% on the day (5-of-13), often taking the ball strong to the lane and looking for contact.

“I thought Sam was terrific in terms of his aggressiveness offensively in getting to the rim,” said Horn after the game.  “Sam’s a physical guard, he likes to play that way, we’ve just really got to get more physical play out of our other perimeter guys.” 

In a game where the Norse gave up considerable size and athleticism to the Bearcats, they surely would have liked to have seen more minutes from sophomore post Keeyan Itejere, who got the start and fouled out after only 19 minutes on the court.  Itejere did have an impact on the game with his play (10 points – 5 rebounds – 1 block) while shooting 83% from the field on 5-of-6 shooting, but Horn found himself digging into his bench early to replace the minutes left behind by the portal transfer from Marquette. 

Junior transfer post Cade Meyer (Green Bay) and sophomore forward LJ Wells looked to fill the minutes left by the immensely athletic Itejere, accounting for seven points and seven rebounds in their 35 minutes of combined play. 

On the afternoon the Norse were outrebounded by a 45-30 margin, while also falling in the battle of points in the paint, 48-38.  The Norse were bounced around early and often by a much more physical UC team, giving the Bearcats ample opportunity to dominate the boards, penetrate the paint and seemingly pile up second-chance points at will (24 points to NKU’s 14) with little to no defensive pressure out on the perimeter and down low on the baseline.  The soft defensive stress applied by the Norse allowed the Bearcats to bully their way to shooting 50% from the field overall and sink 30 of their points from behind the arc.

Coach Horn after the game:  “The thing we did the entire game…we don’t guard.  And that’s on me, I’ve done a poor job of getting this crew understanding and buying in on about how important defense is.  And it’s (defense) something we’ve been really good at in our program, and it’s allowed us to win, especially late in the year when it matters most.  And we just don’t defend the way that we need to in order to give ourselves a chance to win a game like this.  We’ve got no chance to beat anybody on our schedule if we don’t start defending and rebounding…”   

Numbers Behind the Norse Numbers:

  • The Norse shot 20% from 3-point-land (4-of-20) Sunday, an ill-fated trend after four games.  They are shooting 26% as a team from behind the arc this season.
  • Finding points on fast breaks and transitions were hard to come by for the Norse, as they were bested by the Bearcats 15-7 in this aspect of the game.
  • Playing with a lineup that essentially employs only one post player at a time on the court, the Norse were manhandled on the backboards, as they were out-rebounded by 15 Sunday (45-30).  Posts Itejere and Meyer – the team’s two most effective rebounders – have yet to take the court at the same time this season.
  • Three freshman guards accounted for 16 minutes of play producing a combined zero points, one rebound and zero assists.
  • Graduate transfer point guard Michael Bradley (Mercyhurst) stayed out of foul trouble Sunday and played 33 minutes, finishing with seven points and three assists…he missed all four of his three-pointers.  Bradley is now shooting 15% from behind the arc, but does have 21 assists in four games for an average of 5.25 apg.
  • Senior Trey Robinson continues to start for the Norse and logged 29 minutes Sunday, scoring seven and snagging five rebounds.  The wing from Hamilton, OH shot 3-of-10 from the field and is averaging 4.8 points per game but shooting just 23% from the field.
  • Warrick’s 19-point game brings his scoring average to 16.0 points per game this season and 1,653 for his career.  With this production, he is on pace to break Drew McDonald’s all-time scoring record at NKU (2,066).

The loss drops the Norse to 1-3 on the season, their lone win the result of a 17-point victory over Division III DePauw University.  The 24-point win stretches UC’s record to 4-0 on the season. 

Next up for the Norse starting Wednesday night (11/22) is the “Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Toyota Dealers Thanksgiving Tournament,” which they are hosting at Truist Arena through Saturday.  The Norse will play in a round robin format against fellow mid-majors Texas A&M – Corpus Christi and Long Island University. 

Last season, TA&M-CC finished 24-11 and won the Southland Conference, then won their NCAA Play-In game before bowing out to Alabama in the First Round.  This season they are 2-2 with both wins over non-Division I opponents and losses against Houston and Texas Tech.

LIU competes in the Northeast Conference (NEC) and are currently 0-4 after finishing 3-26 last season.  One of their three wins were against a Division I opponent, the other two over Division III foes.

The tip off Wednesday night at 6:00pm against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.  Tickets are still available online and at the door.  The game will be aired on ESPN+ and 55KRC AM radio.

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