NKU men sweep home Thanksgiving tourney

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Photo courtesy of Northern Kentucky Athletics

Take down Texas A&M – Corpus Christi and Long Island U

No rest for the weary, it seems.  Not for the NKU men’s basketball team, anyway.  The Norse had an eventful Thanksgiving break, in the form of hosting their own on-campus holiday multi-team event (MTE), the Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Toyota Dealers Thanksgiving Tournament. 

In their first game of the round robin-style tourney Wednesday night, the Norse laid waste to reigning Southland Conference champion Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, 88-73.  In the tournament finale game Saturday afternoon, the Norse overcame early shooting and ball-handling struggles but ultimately topped Long Island University, 72-64.  The pair of wins earned the Norse some tournament hardware as well as insight on what they need to improve upon before conference play starts this coming Wednesday versus Robert Morris.    

In the 15-point win over the Islanders, NKU head coach Darrin Horn’s squad posted four double-digit scorers, after making some minor adjustments to the starting lineup.  The Truist Arena crowd of 2,395 fans saw junior guard Sam Vinson running the offense in place of graduate point guard Michael Bradley to start the game. With Vinson running the offense, Bradley started the game on the bench and sophomore wing LJ Wells was enlisted for his first start of the young season. 

The lineup change appeared to pay handsome dividends quickly, as the Norse stormed out to a 41-30 halftime lead against their fellow 2022-23 NCAA Tournament participant foe.  To anyone watching the game, there was a palpable upturn in both energy and aggression on the court compared to the season’s previous games.  The Norse defense gave the visiting Islanders very little room to breathe, leading to 21 points off 18 forced turnovers.  Fast break points (25) became easier to come by as the Norse ran the court with resolute determination in transition and surged to the rim as opposed to pulling up and slowing the offense down on the perimeter.      

Horn on the lineup change:  “We just needed something different and we haven’t played well, and one of the challenges we have in developing our depth is on the perimeter, and we felt like this (lineup change) would do two things…maybe getting Michael Bradley going a little bit, which he responded in major fashion…he played like a fantastic point guard tonight.  But also, just to give us some flexibility in the rotation with him coming off the bench.  And LJ Wells has played really well and gives us a little more size and length to start the game.”    

With multiple players having solid outings, and the team up by as many as 24 points midway through the second half, Horn was afforded the luxury of resting his starters and giving quality playing time to his bench.  The bench responded with 31 points of their own as the Norse put up 47 points in the second half, their highest second half scoring output this season.

Odds N(orse) Ends:

  • Sam Vinson:  22 points – 3 rebounds – 2 assists – 4 steals – 8/9 from the field
  • Marques Warrick:  21 points – 2 assists – 4/9 from behind-the-arc – 3/3 FT
  • Keeyan Itejere:  6 points – 5 rebounds – 1 assist – 3 blocks – 4 fouls in 22 minutes
  • LJ Wells:  4 points – 5 rebounds – 4 assists – 27 minutes in first start this season
  • Trey Robinson:  4 points – 2 rebounds – 6 assists – 4 fouls in 19 minutes
  • Michael Bradley:  11 points – 5 rebounds – 7 assists – 3 steals – 29 minutes off the bench
  • Jeramiah Israel:  11 points – 2 rebounds – 1 steal – 2/3 from behind the arc – 10 minutes off the bench
  • Fast break points:  NKU 25, TA&M-CC 6
  • Norse FG% in 2nd Half:  68.2% on 15-of-22 shooting

As for the Norse’s second and final game of the MTE, their eight-point win over the LIU Sharks of the Northeast Conference – coached by NBA legend Rod Strickland – was not without bumps in the proverbial road.  The Sharks led the Norse at halftime, 34-28, after Horn’s squad spent the first half trying to find their rhythm on the court.  The Sharks’ style of play requires a fast, frenetic pace with athletic guards and rapid ball movement up the court as well as shifty, aggressive defending on the defensive end. 

The Norse trailed by as many as six points at the 14:53 mark in the second half after LIU guard Tana Kopa hit a deep three-pointer to draw the score out to 44-38.  The Norse patiently chipped away for the next four minutes until they tied the game up at 48 on a fast-break bucket by Vinson at the 10:22 mark. 

From then on, the teams battled back and forth as the Norse nursed a modest 2-6 point lead.  The game never truly felt secure until the 1:25 point when Bradley stepped up to the charity stripe and buried two clutch free throws to extend the lead to nine at 68-59. The Norse held the Sharks at bay the remainder of the contest until Tai Strickland hit a jumper with 15 seconds left to account for LIU’s last points and the final score, 72-64.    

While the Sharks are coming off a 3-26 season in which they had just one win over a Division I opponent, one would not have guessed that while watching them beat Texas A&M – Corpus Christi handily earlier in the MTE and then taking the Norse the distance in the tourney finale. 

Coach Strickland’s team came into the tourney 0-4 on the season, having just played opponents with a combined 18-11 record, including PAC-12 leader UCLA…so they arrived at NKU fresh off games against quality opponents and ready to get their own season on track.

As many programs did in the offseason, Strickland markedly improved his roster through the transfer portal, with his most notable recruits being his sons, Tai and Terell Strickland.  Junior guard Terell transferred to LIU from James Madison while his older brother – redshirt senior guard Tai – started his career at Wisconsin, then made transfer stops at Temple and Georgia Southern before landing at LIU to play for his dad.

Horn was thankful for the win after the game, stating “Give LIU credit, I love what Rod’s doing, they really know how they want to play…they have really good guards that can make plays for themselves and others.  So give them credit, they gave us some issues early.  The biggest thing is, we’ve got to play better for a complete game.” 

After the game, Horn described what he feels may have led to his squad struggling to put two solid halves of basketball together consistently enough to be successful this season:  “This was a game of two very, very different halves, and I think what (we) saw at the beginning was a team (NKU) that their head coach did a poor job of scheduling too many hard games in too short a time…this was our third game in seven days.  I thought we looked like it early in the game for sure…but give our guys credit for really responding when they needed to, especially late (in the game).”

Significant Stats:

  • Sam Vinson:  14 points – 6 rebounds – 5 assists – 3 steals
  • Marques Warrick:  14 points – 2 rebounds – 4 assists – 2 steals – 4/4 FT
  • Michael Bradley:  14 points – 3 rebounds – 1 assist – 4 steals
  • Keeyan Itejere:  12 points – 6 rebounds – 5 blocks – 6/7 from the field
  • Trey Robinson:  9 points – 4 rebounds – 3 assists – 4/4 from the field
  • LJ Wells:  2nd start, 16 minutes – 3 points – 2 rebounds – 1 assist
  • Points Off Turnovers:  NKU 19, LIU 11  
  • Points in the Paint:  NKU 44, LIU 26
  • Freebies:  Free throws – NKU 19/26, LIU…4/7
  • “Big Shot” – Sophomore forward Keeyan Itejere is currently shooting 76.7% from the field on the season.  If he had enough “Field Goal Attempts per Game” according to ESPN’s metrics, he would rank #2 in the nation in Field Goal Percentage, just behind Virginia Tech’s senior center, Lynn Kidd (78.7%).

NKU will enjoy a three day rest as they prepare to host Horizon League rival Robert Morris Wednesday night. Nov. 29 at Truist Arena.  RMU is currently 2-4 with recent wins over NAIA ‘s Point Park and Farleigh Dickenson.  The 7:00pm game will be aired via ESPN+ as well as FoxSports 1360AM on the radio.  Tickets are available at www.NKUNorse.com as well as the arena’s on-site ticket office.

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