Norse men rebound from two-game losing streak

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Photo courtesy of Northern Kentucky Athletics

Use torrid second half to dump Youngstown State

Ho, Ho…No

Prepare yourselves readers, the holidays got the best of my time so I’ve got a lot to catch you up on…so hang in there, take a coffee break between paragraphs if need be.  It’s time to catch you up on the worst of losses, the most gratifying of wins and sadly, the grimmest of injury news. 

During this recent holiday season, the NKU men’s basketball team received the most unwanted of gifts, and worse, they are the kind you can’t simply return with a receipt.    

First, the Norse suffered disheartening setbacks in the form of brutal consecutive losses between the dates of December 21 and December 29, first at West Coast Conference (WCC) power St. Mary’s, and then an away affair that went awry at surging Purdue Fort Wayne. 

On December 21 at St. Mary’s (now 10-6), the Norse dropped a 92-56 decision to the Gaels, a complete disaster of a late-night game on the West Coast.  For head coach Darrin Horn and his staff, this very contest was circled on the calendar as a prime opportunity to nab a marquee win on the road against a perennially-ranked opponent.  Not only did the Norse get run out of the gym by their hosts, they also lost junior guard Sam Vinson for the season in the process.  It was truly a salt-in-the-wound game for the black and gold.

At the 2:28 mark in the first half, the Norse were down seven (31-24) but still scraping by while staying within striking distance.  At that same mark, on the tail end of a play Sam Vinson’s foot hit the hardwood awkwardly and wrenched his knee, sending him limping harshly to the training room where he would ultimately return from, but this time with the aid of crutches.  Later on after the game, it was found that Vinson badly tore his ACL, effectively ending his season. 

The Norse came out for the second half, clearly affected by not just Vinson’s injury, but also the cavernous void his absence left behind on the court.  Vinson, widely considered to be one of the most well-rounded mid-major players in the country (so much so that NBA scouts were breathing his name early on in the season), could only watch his team fall apart against the Gaels as his team went on to be outscored 54-27 in the second half.

Hoping to recover from the 36-point thrashing by St. Mary’s, the Norse went home to regroup and re-focus their plans moving forward “AV”… After Vinson.  On December 29, the Norse hit the road to Ft. Wayne (now 13-2) with hopes of a huge road win against a surging Mastodons squad.  That game also ended poorly, a 73-60 loss that gave the Norse their first conference loss on the season. 

With Vinson out, Horn slid Bradley back into the starting lineup to give the Norse a lineup that featured five players who have all made starts this season.  The Norse were in the game at halftime, down by just a point (27-26) after limiting the ‘Dons to just 31% shooting from the field and 26.3% from behind the arc.

And then “it” happened…again.  The ‘Dons came out of their locker room firing on all cylinders and looking like a new team, while the Norse seemed to struggle to match PFW head coach Jon Coffman’s mid-stream adjustments.  The ‘Dons controlled the whole second half, forcing the Norse to play catch-up as the visitors threw up 12 treys in the second half, hitting just three of them. 

Handcuffing the visitors in the form of 25% from behind the arc while watching the Norse hit just 52.4% from the charity stripe was all the home team needed to finish the game off.  Following what appeared to be a troubling trend, the Norse went on to be outscored in the second half, 46-34, for the difference in the 13-point conference loss.

Fast forward to Thursday, January 4…NKU hosted conference rival Youngstown State in what is quickly becoming one of the more visible mid-major rivalries in the country.  With more time for the coaching staff to assess the right combinations and rotations on the court sans-Vinson – and in a game the Norse didn’t truly control until there was just 0:10 left on the final clock – the Norse stole the win, 79-76.

With six minutes left in the first half, the Penguins led by as many as 16 (35-19), and seemed to be cruising to a road win at Truist Arena.  The Norse spent the remainder of the half chipping away at the lead, gradually slimming the visitor lead back down to single digits before the halftime buzzer sounded.  Down by nine (45-36) against a Penguins squad that shot 56% from the field the first half, the Norse went into the locker room to regroup.

This time “it” didn’t happen – the Norse didn’t fold like a stack of dish towels.  Instead, they came out of the locker room recharged and with a clear second half plan and readiness to install it. 

At the 14:00 mark, the Norse trimmed the lead to four (52-48) on a steal near the paint that started with sophomore post Keeyan Itejere. 

The Marquette transfer slapped a Penguin pass away in the passing lane and then flipped the ball to freshman guard Randy Pettus II, who took two dribbles and then swung the ball up the court to senior guard Marques Warrick who lofted a perfect alley-oop pass to Norse wing LJ Wells.  The sophomore wing from Wisconsin took flight and slammed the ball down and rattled the rim for two crucial points that woke the crowd up and sent them to their feet. 

As ESPN+ TV color analyst Drew McDonald put it, “Defense leading the offense…you get a steal and it’s automatically a broken floor and it gives you an opportunity to play above the rim like Northern Kentucky wants to do and it gives them an opportunity to get the crowd involved.”

By the 9:31 mark in the second half, the YSU lead was down to one (60-59) after one of Itejere’s several highlight reel dunks on the night.  Just 25 seconds later, Warrick seized the lead for the Norse with two free throws (61-60), after stealing the ball from former Norse point guard Bryson Langdon and getting fouled on the way to the basket.

The remaining nine minutes of the game, the two Horizon League powers took turns wresting one point leads from each other until Warrick unleashed an open trey at 00:43 that gave his team a 77-74 lead.  The Penguins pulled back two of those points (77-76) at 00:29 on a quick layup by Murray State transfer forward DJ Burns, but with 10 seconds left, Warrick iced the game with two more free throws (79-76) to seal the exhausting comeback for good. 

While many players made a substantial impact on the final result, the Norse were led heavily by Warrick’s 29 points, 3 assists and 3 steals as well as the production in the paint from Itejere and his 19 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.  The win pushes the Norse above .500 on the season at 8-7 (3-1 HL) and drops Youngstown State to 10-5 (2-2 HL).      

Numbers Behind the Numbers:

  • Marques Warrick:  29 points – 3 assists – 3 steals on 9-of-16 shooting from the field, 5-of-10 from deep and 6-of-6 from the charity stripe
    • Ques’ 29 points brings his scoring average up to 19.0 points per game on the year, good for the #2 spot among Horizon League leaders and just 1.0 point behind leader Trey Calvin of Wright State
    • Now has scored 285 on the season and 1,874 for his career, moving him up another rung on NKU’s scoring leader ladder.  He passed former All-American LaRon Moore (1.866 points) to take the #5 spot on the list 
    • Fun Fact:  Moore achieved these numbers in four seasons while playing less than 30 minutes per game every season for former coaching great Ken Shields
  • Keeyan Itejere:  19 points – 9 rebounds – 3 blocks on 8-of-10 (80%) from the field
  • Michael Bradley:  9 points – 5 rebounds – 11 assists – 0 turnovers
    • Leads Horizon League with 72 assists at 4.8 apg
    • His Assist-to-Turnover ratio of  2.7 places him #2 in the conference
  • Jeramiah Israel:  5 points – 6 rebounds – 1 steal
    • Freshman’s first start of the season – played 22 minutes
  • Trey Robinson:  2 points – 1 rebound – 2 assists – 3 steals
  • LJ Wells:  12 points – 3 rebounds – 1 steal – 4-of-4 from the field
    • Moved back to bench in favor of Bradley, but played 28 minutes
  • Randy Pettus II:  3 points – 1 rebound – 2 steals
    • Hit his first basket from the field, a long three-pointer from near the corner
    • Played 13 minutes, a career high
  • Cade Meyer:  2 rebounds – 3 fouls in 9 minutes on the court
  • Cesar Tchilombo: 1 steal
  • YSU Leaders:
    • Brandon Rush 19 points, 10 boards – DJ Burns 14 points, 8 boards – Bryson Langdon 10 points, 4 assists
  • Points in the Paint:
    • NKU 34, YSU 22
  • Points Off Turnovers:
    • NKU 11, YSU 5
  • Second Chance Points:
    • NKU 14, YSU 7
  • Fast Break Points:
    • NKU 21, YSU 13
  • “Stop, Thief!”
    • Steals:  NKU 11, YSU 4
  • “I Mean, They ARE Free…”
    • Free Throws:  NKU 79% (15-of-19)
  • Split Down the Middle:
    • Rebounds:  NKU 33, YSU 33

Please DO Call It a Comeback:

  • During 2nd Half:
    • Points:  NKU 43, YSU 31
    • Norse shot 53.3% from the field, after 37.5% in the 1st Half
    • Held YSU to 40.7% after a 55.6% 1st Half
    • Free Throws:  NKU 8, YSU 5, Final game margin….3

The Norse return back to action on Sunday, January 7 at Cleveland State (10-6, 3-2 HL) for a 4:00pm EST tipoff at the Wolstein Center.  The Vikings are 8-0 at home so far this season, but are coming off of an 82-70 loss to Wright State.  Second year coach Daniyal Robinson runs an exciting, up-tempo system led by HL Player of the Year candidate Tristan Enaruna, who leads the Vikings in scoring (17.3 ppg) while shooting 50% from the field.  Norse fans can watch the mid-afternoon game on ESPN+ or hear it on FoxSports 1360AM radio.

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