NKU Comes Out Swinging, Routs Stetson to End 8-Game Skid
Very little had gone right for Northern Kentucky since the first week of January, but on Thursday night just about everything went perfectly.
NKU had gone just 1-11 since Jan. 6 and had lost eight straight games, but ended that streak in a major way by rolling over Stetson, 96-58, before a crowd of 2,581 in The Bank of Kentucky Center.
The 96 points were the most in a game in NKU's two years as a Division I program. The Norse made 15 of their first 22 shots from the field, including 7 of their first 9 three-pointers, on the way to scoring 57 first-half points, which is also the most in a half as Division I member and nine points off the overall single-game school record for a half.
NKU (9-20 overall, 5-12 Atlantic Sun Conference) finished the game shooting a season-high 57.4 percent from the field overall, including 13 of 24 three-pointers, made 21 of 25 free throws and limited Stetson (7-22, 5-12) to 38.2 percent shooting overall, including 2 of 15 three-pointers.
"Defensively we were so focused and that carried over to the offense and to make shots early really helped," said NKU head coach Dave Bezold. "I thought our energy out of our guards defensively and communication was tremendous. I think even if we didn't shoot as well as we did tonight we would have won the game, because defensively we were going to compete our tail ends off."
Stetson's two leading scorers – 6-foot-6 senior forward Willie Green and 6-foot-8 junior forward Kentwan Smith – were held to just eight points combined, 15.5 below their combined average, and the duo was just 3 of 9 from the field.
While NKU had lost its previous eight games in a row, two of those losses were by one point each, another was by two points and another by four points.
"The last eight games a lot of times the bounces didn't go our way, but we didn't make the bounces go our way," said Bezold. "The 50-50 balls tonight we got after. When you play solid and just do things right the numbers are going to play out. It's been difficult on the coaching staff and it's been difficult on the players. These kids have been coming to practice, been tuned and worked hard, but they haven't been rewarded. We haven't rewarded ourselves with wins when we've been right there and now I hope we take a big deep breath and realize we can win games."
NKU had only scored over 70 points in a game eight times also season entering Thursday's game, but the Norse scored their 70th point with 14:28 still left in the game.
Part of the reason for the Norse's offensive success was their passing. They had 21 assists out of their 31 baskets and turned the ball over just eight times in the game, just one of those coming in the first half on a charge.
"We never panicked with the ball or tried to do too much with the ball," said Bezold. "There were a lot of times coming to the end of the shot clock where we made the extra pass and got a good shot off."
NKU had all nine players who scored tally at least six points and five finish in double figures, led by freshman forward Cole Murray's 17 points off the bench. He made 5 of 6 three-pointers.
Junior center Jalen Billups added 14 points and seven rebounds, while sophomore guard Tyler White also had 14 points. Junior guard Jordan Jackson tallied 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists and freshman guard Dean Danos, who started in place of injured sophomore Todd Johnson, added 10 points.
Danos, who entered the game averaging 3.4 points per game, had eight of those points in the first 4:46 of the game, including two three-pointers.
Senior guard Hunter Miller led Stetson with 11 points and junior center Kyle Sikora added 10 off the bench.
NKU will close out its second Division I season at home at 1 p.m. on Saturday against Florida Gulf Coast, which is tied for first in the Atlantic Sun Conference with Mercer. That means the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament will be on the line for Florida Gulf Coast. Stetson earned the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament when Kennesaw State lost to Jacksonville. NKU is not eligible for the conference tournament until the 2016-17 season.
"Before these games I was excited about them, because both teams had something to play for," said Bezold. "Stetson wasn't guaranteed to be in the conference tournament and Florida Gulf Coast needs to win to get the No. 1 seed. We were excited what our kids were going to be faced with. Hopefully we have 40 more minutes of good basketball in us."