Norse Roundup:  Lost three of last four

Photo by Brendan Connelly

Thursday OT win over Oakland slows bleeding

Pardon my less-than-traditional writing style herein as I find my writing flow again.  Due to various circumstances, I have been unable to put the proverbial pen to paper the past few weeks. 

During this sports writing hiatus, the men in black (and gold) followed up a much-needed three game win streak with three consecutive debilitating losses. First there was the 63-58 home loss to Purdue-Ft. Wayne in which the Norse fell short of a fourth straight win against a fumbling Mastadons team that had just lost five straight – two of those loses to teams in the league’s bottom three. 

The Norse stayed within two possessions of the ‘Dons the whole way,  but missed 15 shots from behind the arc on their way to a 16.8% clip (3-of-18) from deep on the evening. 

Perhaps hindsight is always 20/20, but here’s to hoping in the future the Norse don’t continue angling for the lowest percentage shot on the court – over and over and over and over (…and missing) when all they need in a couple quick layups to overtake their opponent.  Good teams can see when something just…isn’t…working…and make adjustments or change tactics in an attempt to regain traction.     

Proving that the ailing ‘Dons used the Norse to get well if just for a night, immediately following their win over the Norse they continued their underperforming ways in dropping two of their next three games.  The lone bright spot in the home court rock fight was senior guard Marques Warrick’s offensive display in which he scored 27 points on the night, drawing him closer to the NKU career scoring title held by Drew McDonald.  The former Norse forward now serves as a color analyst for NKU’s games on ESPN+.

Photo by Brendan Connelly

Then came one of the program’s most humiliating Horizon League losses in recent memory, an 82-52 thrashing at Youngstown State – in front of 6,001 fans – in which the Penguins outscored NKU 44-21 in a second half that saw the Norse shoot just 24% from the field.  Insert second half collapse reference here. 

The Norse got absolutely pummeled in the paint, getting outscored down low, 34-14.  To make matters worse, they turned the ball over 20 times en route to surrendering 23 points off turnovers alone. 

The Guins actually scored more points strictly in the paint and off turnovers than the Norse scored total all night…that’s not normal.  But in a game that is purely fluid and requires continuous adjustments, it seems the Norse are far too often finding themselves on the wrong end of said adjustments.   

Lastly came a painful 85-78 home loss to Wright State on NKU’s Homecoming night.  In a must-win game…against their most bitter rival…on their home court…on Homecoming night…head coach Darrin Horn’s squad could not get out of their own way as their season-long second half propensity to collapse continued.    

The visiting Raiders (do Raiders “visit” though, or do they just “raid?”) dominated the second half, shooting 58% from the field on their way to the crucial conference win. 

The Norse continued their head-scratching approach to offense, opting for long balls when all they needed was 2-3 higher percentage shots to get right back in the game.  In a game where the Norse ultimately found themselves down two possessions across the balance of 40 minutes, they chose to shoot nearly 40% of their shots (26-of-66) from 22 feet out and longer.

There are only so many games you have on your schedule before March roars in and brings the conference tournament with it.  In the Horizon League the margin of error this time of year is razor thin, with 11 teams angling for the top four all-important end-of-season tournament seeds.  Mathematically speaking, the highest seeds will always have the best chance of advancing to the NCAA Tournament.  Winning right now is key, there can’t be a “We’ll be fine, we just need to win in March” mentality when you are struggling to even beat the teams in the bottom half of your conference.

That said, thank goodness for Thursday night’s home game against Oakland.  On paper this game looked like a possible nightmare waiting to happen.  The Golden Grizzlies (15-9, 10-3 HL) came to Truist Arena in stout form, winners of nine of their last 10 games and sitting firmly in third place in the Horizon League standings…their only loss during that stretch came at the hands of conference leader Green Bay.

Oakland head coach Greg Kampe always has his team ready to play the Norse, and Thursday night was no exception.  As is always the case between the two, the Norse and Grizzlies fought tooth and nail for every point, rebound and steal.  In a game that will go down as one for the ages between the two old rivals, the Norse escaped the slugfest on top, pulling out the 99-89 overtime win in front of 2,702 home crowd fans.      

While the Grizzlies led the Norse for more than 60% of the game, the Norse never looked or felt like they were automatically destined to lose their fourth straight.  To select an MVP for the game would be a near-impossible task, as so many Norse players dug deep and contributed to the exhausting win down the stretch.

Warrick made substantial progress toward claiming the Norse scoring record, pouring in 20 points to go along with his 3 rebounds and 4 assists.  He currently has 2,027 points to his resume and sits comfortably in second place on the all-time list, less than 20 points away from making the title his own – he is projected to potentially break the record this Saturday at home against Detroit Mercy. 

Despite Warrick’s impressive showing, it was graduate point guard Michael Bradley who grabbed the spotlight.  In his 42 minutes on the court, without his 26 points, 8 assists and 5 overtime points this may be a different game with a different outcome. 

Most impressive has been Bradley’s ability to keep the ball safe and distribute it at an elite level.  In his last 10 games, Bradley is averaging 4.8 assists per game, logging 48 assists to just 14 turnovers.  For those uninitiated in the nuances of stats-speak…those numbers are absolutely bonkers, and his 4.54 assists per game on the season places him in the nation’s Top 100 in the APG category.

If we are handing out trophies for Thursday’s burnburner, we should probably reserve one for senior wing Trey Robinson and sophomore post Keeyan Itejere. 

Robinson continues to peak as the season wears on.  The Hamilton, Ohio native racked up 20 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals on the night. 

Itejere, the 6-9 transfer from Marquette, was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field, finishing the night with 13 points and 10 rebounds in 42 minutes of play.  He also came up clutch in overtime with five points and was crucial on the defensive end in holding Oakland down on their late offensive possessions.

All said, it has been a rough four-game stretch for the Norse, but to see it end in a huge win against a Grizzlies team that has been mauling though its opponents the past 10 games had to be cause for optimism.  At 12-12 (7-6 HL), the Norse are tied with Milwaukee for sixth place in the conference. 

With seven games remaining in the regular season, the Horizon League is still fairly wide open.  Green Bay and Youngstown State are going to be tough to budge out of the top four spots, but there truly are six teams legitimately in play for the other top four seeds.

Next up, the Norse host winless Detroit Mercy (0-25, 0-14 HL) Saturday afternoon at Truist Arena.  Tipoff is set for 4:00pm EST, and the game will be available on ESPN+ (stream) and Fox1360 AM (radio).

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