In Defeat, Northern Kentucky Knows Triumph, Optimism
Drew McDonald and Cole Murray raised their arms and pumped their fists at the Northern Kentucky crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and in turn, the fans responded with loud cheers.
Had one not watched the preceding game, he wouldn't know that it was Murray's last in a Norse uniform, and that midnight had quite literally just struck on NKU's Cinderella run to the NCAA Tournament.
"We wanted to thank our fans," McDonald said after, a little choked up after the Norse, a #15 seed in their first-ever Big Dance, fell to #2 seed Kentucky. "The weird thing was, when I got over there, they were thanking me. I saw people saying thank you."
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But that's how the past few weeks have been in Northern Kentucky as fans, students, and alumni finally rallied around the hometown team that made a valiant run through the Horizon League tournament in Detroit, claiming the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in NKU's first year eligible as a new Division I program. McDonald said that when he locked eyes with his father in the stands, his dad gave him a thumbs-up, and that "put in a tear in my eye," he said. "The impact we had on the community and the university as a whole, I just can't thank Norse Nation enough."
Northern Kentucky had a respectable showing in the stands, and the perception may have benefited from Wichita State playing in the game prior because the Shockers and the Norse share the same black and gold colors. But no team's fans travel like Kentucky's, and with the game a short drive to Indianapolis, Big Blue Nation was loud in the arena. The leftover fans from the Wichita State-Dayton match, which the Shockers won and advanced to play Kentucky next, seemed supportive of the underdog Norse.
At tip-off, though, no one seemed to believe in the NKU basketball team more than the players themselves. Entering as a nearly 20-point underdog by Vegas oddsmakers, the Norse matched UK early shot for shot and miss for miss, fearlessly taking it inside and launching it from outside. Much had been made about the size different and how big UK was compared to NKU, but that proved to be a minimal factor in this game.
The biggest detriment for Northern Kentucky was that too many of these bold - and often wide-open shots - rimmed out. The Norse shot under 30 percent in the first half, and while parts of the game were thrilling, NKU found itself down to UK at the half, 38-24.
What adjustments would be made at the intermission? What adjustments needed to be made? The defense was relatively strong, and the guys were getting decent looks at the basket. The only obvious adjustment needed was to make more shots.
Out of the gate in the second half, that didn't seem to happen, as more heaves from beyond the arc went in and then out. Murray shot 2 for 9 from outside, and McDonald was just 3 for 9. Lavone Holland was 1 for 6.
Northern Kentucky heaved 32 three-point shots, and made just 8.
The inside game was different in the second half and the Norse found more luck there. Carson Williams was a beast at the basket, hitting 7 of 10 shots and all 7 of his free throw attempts, for a total of 21 points on the night. Holland led the Norse with 22 points - including 2 from a statement dunk in the first half.
NKU improved its shooting in the second half, to 47 percent from the first half half's measly 24 percent and the Norse made a run late in the game, after burying itself midway through the half. UK led by as many as 18 points, but the game was nearing its end, NKU finally got hot from outside, getting as close as 7.
"The thing they did all season was hit threes," UK coach John Calipari said after the game. "I said at halftime, they missed a bunch of threes they would not normally miss."
But there wasn't enough time for a full comeback. Kentucky won, 79-70. Northern Kentucky's most thrilling season ended with a 24-11 record.
"We were the best shooting team in the Horizon League all season and tonight was not our night," Coach John Brannen said of the Norse. But the team showed "tremendous character and tremendous toughness", he said, noting that the game could have gotten more out of hand for them but didn't.
The optimistic departure from the court may be motivated by a team already looking to the future. "I think it's huge," Brannen said of the impact this season will have on the program. "Obviously we now become more of the hunted. We were picked seventh in the (Horizon) preseason, and had no expectations."
Brannen, who has post-season experience as a coach, and who took over at Alabama for two games in the 2015 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) before taking the NKU job, said post-season experience helps for programs looking for more of it.
"Teams that advance are teams that have been here before. We'll take stock in that coming back. We have a tremendous crew coming back."
"This is pretty historical," Brannen said, "to do somethign the first you get the chance to do it, and only two teams have done it since 1970."