Norse home court advantage pays off against Wisconsin rivals

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Photo by Brendan Connelly

Pound visiting Panthers, Phoenix to stay in HL hunt

After a trio of consecutive razor-thin margin, nail-biting games on the road, the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team came home to find the familiar confines of Truist Arena the most welcome of sights…and at just the right time.

Prior to its most recent home stand against Horizon League rivals Milwaukee and Green Bay, the Norse (11-9, 6-3 Horizon League) found themselves in a very precarious position. 

They were in a gradual slide down the conference standings, a foreign observation to Norse fans.  Head coach Darrin Horn’s squad had just lost two straight final-minute losses on the road to Cleveland State and Oakland – a one possession setback to the Vikings and an overtime thriller loss to the Golden Grizzlies – before needing all 40 minutes to grind out a two-possession win on the road over arguably the nation’s worst Division I basketball team at Detroit Mercy (now 0-20, 0-9 HL). 

Three tough games in seven days on the road is a lot to ask of any program, especially a program still reeling from the loss of one of its impact players in junior guard Sam Vinson. 

After dropping two of three on the road, the Norse returned home to take on the Panthers (then 9-9, 4-3) and a conference-leading Phoenix squad (then 12-8, 7-2 HL) that had just won seven of its last eight in mostly mowing through its conference schedule. 

Thursday night, the Norse throttled visiting Milwaukee, 90-72, in front of 3,405 fans at Truist Arena. 

The home team went into the locker rooms at halftime carrying a 46-41 lead after hitting 51.3% from the field and connecting on 5-of-10 shots from behind the arc. 

While the Norse focused their offense on running in transition and attacking the basket, the Panthers opted for the long ball, slinging up 22 treys in the first half alone and hitting on nine of them.   All totaled, three-pointers accounted for 66% of Milwaukee’s scoring in the first half – they went on to shoot 14 more in the second half, sinking only two of those (14.3%) and leaving them with a 30.6% three-point shooting performance (11-of-36) on the night. 

Stingy defense by the Norse and the Panthers’ insistence on choosing to load up on low percentage shots from deep allowed the Norse lead to grow out of reach for the visitors, outscoring them to the tune of 44-31 in the second half on the way to the 18-point win for the Norse.

The Norse made themselves very difficult to guard, distributing the ball well en route to featuring six players scoring in double digits.  Senior guard Marques Warrick paced the Norse with 21 points on 7/16 shooting from the field to go along with his 4 assists and 3 steals.  Graduate transfer point guard Michael Bradley hit fire from deep, hitting 5/8 from behind the arc on his way to an 18 point scoring effort. 

Sophomore post Keeyan Itejere (14), senior wing Trey Robinson (12), sophomore forward LJ Wells (10) and freshman guard Randy Pettus II (10) also featured in doubles for the Norse.  

Fast forward two days to Saturday – in front of a hair shy of 5,000 fans in Truist Arena – the black and gold hosted conference surprise upstart Green Bay, who stood at the top of the Horizon League standings at 7-2 going into the fracas. 

Green Bay Head Coach Sundance “Sunny” Wicks and the almost-entirely revamped Phoenix squad have been the talk of mid-major basketball this season, as the first-year Phoenix coach has taken over a 3-29 team from last season and turned them into immediate conference contenders.

In order for the Norse to string two crucial wins together, they would need to corral Green Bay’s Horizon League Player of the Year candidate Noah Reynolds, while finding a way through (or around) the Horizon League’s best defensive team. 

Reynolds, the 6’3” junior guard transfer from the University of Wyoming, journeyed to Green Bay with Wicks when he was given the head coaching opportunity.  At Wyoming last season, he averaged 14.1 points per game in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) as one of the Cowboys’ top players. 

Upon joining the Horizon League, he picked right up where he left off, now averaging 19.1 points, 4.5 assists and 0.6 blocks per game for the Phoenix while shooting 50.3% from the field. 

In the resounding win, the Norse harried one of the conference’s top players at every turn en route to one of his roughest performances of the season.  This was evident in Reynolds’ final stat line…in 31 minutes of action Saturday, the Norse held the former WAC star to just 9 points on 4/15 (26.7%) shooting from the field.  Mission 1: Complete.

Next up was concocting a game plan that would allow the Norse to put points on the board against a swarming team defense only giving up 67.1 point per contest.  In putting up seven more points than Green Bay’s top tier defense averages per game, the Norse controlled the Phoenix from tipoff to the final whistle in abruptly grounding them, 74-52.  Mission 2:  Complete. 

In nearly identical form as the Milwaukee win, the Norse took a solid lead into halftime (33-25), then emerged from the locker rooms and opened up the proverbial throttle on both ends of the court, outscoring the flummoxed visitors 41-27 in the second half on their way to the 22 point landslide win. 

What also cannot be ignored is how the Norse handled and maintained control of the ball, surrendering just 5 turnovers and snagging 8 steals on the night compared to Green Bay’s 10 and just 2 respectively.

In the victory over Green Bay, Warrick led Horn’s team in scoring with 21 points, followed up by a balance palate of points from Wells (15), Itejere (13) and Bradley (10).

Gimme The Deets…

  • Between the 2 Home games versus Milwaukee and Green Bay, the following leading players averaged:
    • Ques Warrick:  21 points – 2 boards – 3.5 assists
      • Remains deadlocked with Wright State’s Trey Calvin for the HL scoring title, both shooters averaging 19.2 points per game this season
    • LJ Wells:  12.5 points – 5.5 boards – 1.5 assists
    • Keeyan Itejere:  13.5 points – 6.5 boards – 1.5 blocks
    • Michael Bradley:  14 points – 3 boards – 3.5 steals – 3.5 assists (versus 1 total turnover)
    • Trey Robinson:  8.5 points – 8 boards – 4 assists – 2 steals
    • Randy Pettus II:  7.5 points – 2.5 boards – 1 assist – Continues to garner regular minutes, averaged 19 minutes between the two games
  • Emergence of RPII:
    • The season-ending injury to Vinson was a crushing blow to Horn and the squad.  But, as a sort of “silver lining,” it did force the coaching staff to tinker with its young depth pieces and challenge the bench players – specifically the three freshman guards – to prove they deserve first-man-off-the-bench minutes
    • Early on, Horn allowed that because of his prior high-level experience in Australia and his ahead-of-the-curve physical frame and athleticism, guard Fiston Ipassou was finding the court early and often.  However, he has played a grand total of 15 minutes since the beginning of December
    • Then Jeramiah Israel became a regular face in the crowd on the court, and produced efficiently when called upon
    • And now, Horn is getting more and more quality play out of (“Fast Randy”) Pettus II, who was a wicked quick, high volume scoring threat in high school
    • While at first glance by those on the outside, this could be viewed as young players losing favor with Horn and falling off the radar in favor of the next man up.  But that doesn’t appear to be the case, if history is any indicator.  Horn is known for rewarding players for their effort and results in practice, and Pettus II is likely just the most recent young buck to show emerging signs of growing into the system
  • “Hey, I know you!”:
    • While the Green Bay roster may not quite resemble the Phoenix squad of 2022-23, Green Bay transfer Cade Meyer saw some familiar faces on the opposing side of the court Saturday night 
    • Against his former team, Meyer earned his most playing time since logging 14 minutes on December 21 at St. Mary’s, hitting his only shot from the field and hauling in 3 rebounds in his 13 minutes on the court 
    • According to Horn, Meyer is a critical member on this team and is adjusting to being a role player on a roster of quality players, as opposed to having to be “the guy” every night like he was last season for a dismal Green Bay squad
  • Weird Flex, but OK…:
    • The Norse only have one active player averaging double digits in scoring, but they are one blowout win away from featuring four double-digit threats:
      • Current:  Warrick – 19.2 ppg
      • On the verge:  Robinson – 9.5 ppg / Bradley – 9.2 ppg / Itejere – 8.8 ppg   
  • “Peaking? We Talkin’ About Peaking?” (shameless Allen Iverson play-on-words):
    • There’s no better time than the present to start playing your best ball of the season.  And it could be argued that the Norse are doing just that, winners of three straight and five of their last seven
    • This current 3-game win streak has catapulted the Norse (11-9, 6-3 HL) up the conference standings into a tie with Youngstown State for the #2 spot.  Only 7-3 Oakland and Green Bay are halting the Norse from reclaiming the top spot in the standings
    • By the Numbers – 15. Average number of points by which the Norse have beat their last three opponents.  Average of the last three game scores would be equivalent to an accumulated 81-66 score line
  • Get Well, Stay Well:
    • The Norse look to keep this momentum moving forward, as they host a struggling Purdue-Ft. Wayne squad on January 25
    • IPFW currently stands at 13-7 (4-5 HL), but are losers of their last five games with especially troublesome recent losses at the hands of conference cellar neighbors IUPUI (6-15) and Robert Morris (8-12), who only have Detroit (0-20) looking up at them in the standings
    • Thursday, January 25 – Truist Arena
      • Stream:  ESPN+ /  Radio: ESPN 1530 AM
      • Tipoff:  7:00pm EST

Continue to follow www.HoriZoneRoundtable.com for the inside scoop on all things Horizon League basketball!

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