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Sure Was Exciting but Northern Kentucky's First Taste of D-I Postseason Slips Away

It was certainly a memorable first-ever NCAA Division I postseason game for the Northern Kentucky University men's basketball team, but it was not a victorious one for the Norse as they fell in overtime to Lipscomb, 76-73, on Tuesday night at Regents Hall in the quarterfinal of the Atlantic-Sun Conference Championship.

“As a fan, what a way to open up March Madness, what an incredible game,” NKU head coach Dave Bezold said after the game. “It just came down to the last possession and that's probably how it should be.”

NKU guard Tyler White knocked down a huge step-back three with five seconds left that tied the game and sent it into overtime. In the extra period, though, the Norse fell behind and A-Sun Freshman of the Year Tayler Persons slipped on the mid-court inbounds pass and fumbled the ball away in the last seconds.

It was an intense back-and-forth game in a high-energy atmosphere, as a packed Regents Hall made things loud and humid in the smaller gym; there were multiple times when play was paused for extra toweling of the court. The crowd was raucous and at times whipped into a frenzy by the persistent foul calls on NKU. In the end, Lipscomb shot 35 free throws while the Norse shot only 16.

“There's contact and calls you think you should get that you don't and it just keeps adding up and keeps adding up,” Bezold said of the foul differential.

The intense game was played at NKU's former home as the Bank of Kentucky Center across campus is playing host to the 9th Region boys and girls high school basketball tournaments.

Not even the referees, though, could prevent this game from being a classic as there were 13 lead-changes and 16 ties throughout the game.

Regulation started how it ended with White stroking threes and getting to the rim, scoring five of his game-high 19 points in the game's opening minutes. On the other end, the smallish Norse had to contain the size that Lipscomb featured underneath, most notably the 6'11'', 310-pound Chad Lang.

“Lang is bigger than anybody we've played this year, but it wasn't much different from the other big guys we've played this year,” Chad Jackson said about guarding Lang.

It quickly became clear the Lipscomb looked to score in the post as they fed Lang and freshman George Brammier in the post and tried to work their offense inside out that way. NKU did a good job on Lang early, however, as they flustered him into multiple turnovers and fouls in the first half.

Both teams featured quality bench players as Cole Murray came off the pine for Coach Bezold and nailed a couple of threes and scored a layup to give him eight first-half points. Nathan Moran kept the Bisons neck-and-neck with sharp shooting and active defense when he checked into the game, making three first-half three-pointers.

The highlight of the first half was Norse center Jalen Billups throwing down a monster dunk in the post over Lipscomb forward Martin Smith. It was a drop-step, one-hand thunder dunk that was both unexpected and explosive. Billups was named to the A-Sun All-Second Team earlier in the week and played well with 12 points and six rebounds, but he and forward Jake Giesler did allow too many easy inside looks for the Lipscomb bigs and at times were simply too small.

As the teams headed down the stretch, it appeared that the Norse may have been pulling away as Tyler White hit a big three to put them up 62-57 with under five minutes left, but in two possessions, the Bisons had tied it again. After making his last triple, White was fouled on his next attempt, but missed all three free-throws. That was an unfortunate theme for the Norse on the evening as they were only able to make 8-16; those failed eight conversions haunted them in the end.

“Everyday Coach (Bezold) stresses to me that when I miss a shot, get on to the next play. So when I miss a free-throw, I try to block it out as soon as it happens,” White said after the game.

Then, after a Todd Johnson missed three, followed by a Chad Jackson runner that dangled on the rim for a moment or two before deciding to miss, the Bisons converted at the free-throw line and extended their lead to three with one possession left for NKU. Tyler White got the ball at the top of the arc on a handoff from Persons, stepped back with a hand in his face and drained an NBA-distance three to tie the game and send it into overtime.

Tyler White had a great game. He had 14 points, including four three-pointers and he knocked down clutch threes throughout the evening. He began the overtime period feeling good, rattling off five more in extra time, but then he went cold and two misses at the end were the difference. With the Norse down a point, and under five seconds left, White found himself open in the paint. The distance was further than a lay up but closer than a jump shot and it looked like the indecision of how best to shoot it caused his bank attempt to rim off.

When Lang made both of his free throws for Lipscomb and giving them a three-point lead, NKU had one last gasp to try to tie again, but Persons slipped, lost the ball and a half-court heave by Chad Jackson was nowhere close to going in.

Coach Bezold said that he hadn't sat at that bench since 1992 because the Norse typically sat at the other bench when they played their games at Regents Hall. The Bank of Kentucky Center was occupied for the Girls 9th Region tournament.

“It was extremely weird,” Bezold said of his vantage point of the game. “It was weird but it also gave me goosebumps when the crowd got loud. You could feel the roar of all of the big moments that had happened in that gym."

NKU finishes the season 13-17 and 7-7 in the A-Sun, their third in Division I.

“I think we have a core that's growing up. We lose two good players, but we've got the next group coming through and I think that's the thing you have to continue now is to be able to transition those kids through. The cupboard's not bare,” Coach Bezold said.

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor

Photo: via NKU