Norse hold off winless Detroit Mercy on road

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Photo courtesy of Northern Kentucky Athletics

Slide by Titans in 81-76 win

Some days you win.  Some days you lose.  And some days you win, but it feels like a loss.  However, when you are playing your third road game in seven days, the old adage “A win is a win” rings as true as true gets.

Saturday night on the road, the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team skirted past Detroit Mercy, 81-76, to narrowly avoid a loss to the hapless Titans (0-18, 0-7 Horizon League), a loss that arguably would have been the squad’s most debilitating setback in recent memory.

Despite being winless, averaging just 60 points per game and sporting the nation’s near-worst NET Ranking (361 of 362 teams), Detroit Mercy hung with the Norse (9-9, 4-3 HL) blow-for-blow until the final whistle in front of 627 fans at Detroit Mercy’s historic Calihan Hall.

The Norse were led by sophomore forward LJ Wells and senior wing Trey Robinson, who together accounted for nearly half the Norse’s total scoring output on the night.  Wells (20 points-5 rebounds-3 steals) and Robinson (20 points – 3 rebounds – 7/9 from field) led a starting lineup that – for the first time this season – featured five starters who played at least 30 minutes in a game.  

With junior guard Sam Vinson gone for the season, Norse head coach Darrin Horn knew he would have to rely even more on the invaluable experience that Robinson brings to the court.

With injuries and an abundance of unproven youth at the guard spot, Horn also finds himself having to rely more and more on emerging players like Wells to step up and produce on a consistent basis…and Wells has done just that recently.  He shot 9-of-13 (69.2%) from the field in his 33 minutes on the court Saturday night.

The 6’8” starter from Eau Claire, Wisc. is averaging 7.2 ppg in his 22.3 minutes per game this season, while shooting 50% from the field and 79% from the free throw line at home.  Wells has had to grow up quickly in Highland Heights after playing an average of just 8.8 minutes per game last season.

“The one thing about LJ…is he’s been unbelievably coachable.  And he really cares about winning and wants to be good, and he really has responded to being challenged and has really stepped up big and made those tough finishes and is playing more physical like we have asked him to,” Horn said of Wells.

Having the length to defend, the size to bang down low with his back to the basket and shooting range to fire up a three-pointer from the perimeter has given the coaching staff some flexibility to use Wells in various spots.  As his playing time and role increases, so does his confidence in his all-around game – in the last four games, Wells is averaging 13.3 points per game.

The scoring came slowly for both squads early on in the first half, with NKU up by as many as seven points (14-7) at the 12:36 mark after a rebound and quick put-back by Wells.  Titans senior guard Jayden Stone, who has been out with an injury since December 14, scalped the lead down to four on a deep three at 11:47.  The transfer from Grand Canyon University poured in 27 points on the night to lead all scorers.

Both teams then went on a brief scoring drought trading fouls, turnovers and substitutions for the next two minutes until Robinson put two more on the board for the Norse at 9:55 to steady the lead at six, 16-10.  The Norse worked every possession to drag the lead out in hopes of forging a wider margin before halftime, but Detroit answered more often than not to stay within two possessions of the defending Horizon League champions.

The Norse led at halftime by just five, 35-30, as their lead never eclipsed seven in the first frame despite a remarkable shooting percentage advantage over the home team (48.3% to 36%).  The Titans kept the game close by taking advantage of the free chances at the charity stripe, hitting 10-of-10 in the first half, good for one-third of their first half offensive production.

In the first 1:20 of the second half, sophomore post Keeyan Itejere stretched the Norse lead to eight (38-30) on a short jumper in the paint.  The transfer from Marquette finished the game with 14 points and 5 rebounds on 6-of-8 (75%) shooting  from the floor.  Itejere’s basket was immediately countered with a three-pointer by sophomore guard Marcus Tankersley, slimming the Norse lead back to five (38-33).

Fast forward to 14:52, the Norse rattled off three straight baskets to push the lead out to the game’s largest at 10, 49-39, off of a layup from Robinson…only to have that effort balanced back out by three straight Detroit Mercy scoring trips one minute later courtesy of Stone and Tankersley, keeping the game close at 49-44.

At 8:38, the Titans continued to battle back, leveling the score even at 60 after two made free throws by Stone.  The teams traded buckets back and forth for six minutes when Stone launched a three that hit its mark, tying the game up at 76 with just 2:08 left in the contest.

From then on out, the Titans were unable to overtake the Norse and resorted to fouling, only to see their conference foe clutch the game at the free throw line where the Norse scored 12 of their 46 second half points. 

In addition to the production of Wells and Robinson, the Norse were paced by senior guard Marques Warrick’s line of 16 points – 4 rebounds – 2 assists on 5-of-12 shooting as well as key production from  Itejere and his 14 points – 5 rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting from the field.  Graduate guard Michael Bradley distributed the ball well, dishing out six assists to just two turnovers on the night.

Gimme The Deets:

LJ Wells:  20 points – 5 boards – 1 assist – 3 steals

  • Averaging 13.3 points his last four games

Trey Robinson:  20 points – 3 boards – 1 assist – 7/9 shooting (77.8%) from the field

  • On A Roll:  Has scored 11 or more points in 7 of his last 9 games
  • Averaging 13.0 points his last 9 games

Ques Warrick:  16 points – 4 boards – 2 assists – on 5/12 shooting (41.7%) from the field

  • Broken Record:  He is still on pace to break the NKU all-time scoring record, held by Drew McDonald
  • Averaging 18.9 points per game this season
  • Was recently added to the Lou Henson Award “watch list.”  The award is given annually by CollegeInsider.com to the most outstanding mid-major men’s college basketball player in NCAA Division I

Keeyan Itejere:  14 points – 5 boards – 1 assist – on 6/8 shooting (75%) from the field

Michael Bradley:  7 points – 6 boards – 6 assists to 2 turnovers

  • Leads Horizon League with both 87 assists and 4.8 assists per game
  • Last year’s graduate point guard (Xavier Rhodes) finished the season with 123 assists in 34 games (3.62 assists per game) – he is now playing professionally in Europe

Get to the Point(s) In the Paint:

  • NKU:  44
  • DMU:  22
  • Massive +22 advantage

Points Off Turnovers:

  • NKU:  14
  • DMU:  12

Lucky Number…

  • Seven (7) lead changes
  • Detroit was actually winning this game as late as the 9:22 mark in 2nd Half (led 58-57)

Quickly!:

  • Fast Break Points:  NKU 12, DMU 2  (+10)

Finishing…Strong…?

  • 2nd Half woes continue to be a troubling trend…
  • Saturday – 2nd Half:  NKU 46, DMU 46…versus arguably worst team in the nation
    • Detroit Mercy FG%;  1st Half 36%, 2nd Half 56.5%
  • Jan. 10 vs. Oakland:  NKU 29, Oakland 34 (-5)
  • Jan. 7 vs. Cleveland St. (2nd Half + OT):  NKU 61, CSU 58
  • Dec. 29 vs. IPFW:  NKU 34, PFW 46 (-12)
  • Dec. 21 vs. St. Mary’s:  NKU 27, SMU 54 (-27)
  • Dec. 17 vs. Eastern Kentucky:  NKU 46, EKU 48 (-4)

With the conference win, the Norse (4-3 in HL) stay within striking distance of a coveted “top 4” spot in the standings.  They are just two games out of the Horizon League lead as they attempt to creep up on co-leaders Green Bay and Oakland who sit at 6-2 in HL play this season.  Not much rest for the Norse, as they return to the home confines of Truist Arena on Thursday, January 18 to take on Milwaukee (9-8, 4-2 HL).  Tipoff is slated for 7:00pm and the game can be seen on ESPN+ or heard on ESPN 1530 AM.

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