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Wasn't Pretty But Brannen, Norse Pick Up First Win of the Season

It was not easy, and not necessarily pretty, but the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team earned the first win of the John Brannen era in Highland Heights, 83-71, over Division II Tiffin. It was also the home opener at BB&T Arena on Tuesday night, and a rebound from Friday night's 107-61 drubbing at West Virginia.

It’s exciting times at NKU these days.

The Norse have nearly transitioned fully to Division I with only one more season remaining before having the chance to earn a ticket to the NCAA Tournament. They have a new coach handpicked from the bench of a major program (Alabama), and a hotbed of local talent in the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati pool right in the ol’ backyard. The platform to basketball success has been put in place in Highland Heights, but, as shown on the floor on Tuesday night, the road is still lengthy.

This team can only get better—not because of a lack of effort or even talent—but because the group is currently processing an abundance of change. It’s a young program in many ways and everyone in the building has to learn more about one another before any great leaps or bounds can take place.

“It’s not about results right now, it’s about the process of getting better. I thought our young men did that over the course of a 40 minute game. So we’ve accomplished our goal in this game of the process of getting better. If we live in that process, the results will eventually take care of themselves,” Brannen said. “I tell people all the time, I’m getting to know this team.”

Perhaps no one on the team showed that to be the case on Tuesday night more than guard Lavone Holland II. This sophomore junior-college transfer from Louisville is the type of player that will excel in the up-tempo, full-court pressure system that Brannen intends to implement at NKU. As a 6’2’’ guard, he’s long and athletic, can move the offense and sky on rebounds, but he has to learn the flow of those around him before his best play will surface.

“He’s a fine athlete to watch play. I think the fans of Northern Kentucky are really going to enjoy his three years here,” Brannen said.

His stat line evokes curiosity: 1-11 from the field, 8-11 from the line, 10 points,12 rebounds, 9 assists,1 turnover. He was by no means bad, in fact, in a lot of ways he was excellent, but a rough shooting day with that many shots can offensively strain a team of the Norse caliber.

“I can’t let the little things get to me,” Holland said about not letting a poor shooting day bother him. “I pay more attention to the other things like rebounding, being in the right spot defensively, just staying with it that way. I can’t get frustrated or consumed about missing shots.”

That showed up in the first half against Tiffin as Holland and senior center Jalen Billups found it difficult to get into a scoring rhythm and let the Dragons capture the lead and keep it for practically the entire first half. Tiffin has an inordinate amount of size for a Division II school and they owned the paint in the first half on both sides of the court. Swing man Khaleal McCormick also showed plenty of game, both going towards the rim and shooting from the parameter. The Norse were outplayed before halftime and if it weren’t for the smart play of freshman Drew McDonald and the pure shooting of forward Cole Murray who combined for 13 points, the hole to dig out of may have been more than a 35-29 halftime score.

“I thought we came out surprisingly tentative,” said Brannen after the game. “Part of it was that we weren’t pressing enough defensively, and I probably should have put a little bit more full-court pressure in the first half. From an individual standpoint, we had some guys that didn’t play up to their typical standards.”

It was a different game in the second half, though.

In short, big man Jalen Billups decided to take over and dominate inside to the tune of 19 second half points and a sudden shot-blocking presence on defense. He led all scorers with 22 points.

“It’s a credit to the young man because a coach can say anything and demand certain things that we like to think are alright, but the young man has to accept it and Jalen did that and Lavone did that,” Brannen said.

With Billups putting in work on the block and getting terrific looks at the basket down low, it forced the Tiffin guards in to help which freed up other players to slash to the rim and often find Billups for a nice dish and an easy two. The formula worked and the balance of the game shifted accordingly midway through the second half.

“I just changed my mind set, really,” Billups said of the second half turnaround. “I struggled a little bit in the first half and was frustrated with myself. Coach emphasized to play free and play hard, and that’s what I did in the second half.”

Once more pressure was put on Tiffin in the frontcourt, turnovers, followed by frustration, followed by fouls 90 feet from the basket ensued and the Dragons’ façade began to crack. With 11:56 left in the game, Tiffin clutched to a two-point lead. Five minutes later, they were down 58-50 with essentially no chance to come back. They had peaked too soon in the game and the Norse had flustered them out of their game.

“The second half was way more indicative of the style of play we want to have,” Brannen said. “We’ve got a team that I wouldn’t say is built for the style of play, we’ve talked about that, but at the same time, we still have to be able to implement it and we will pick and choose our spots. I think they gained a little bit more understanding of what the style of play can do for them."

With under a minute left, Murray hit his fourth 3-pointer to round out his 18 points on the game and the Norse celebrated their first win of 2015-16. NKU will host Morehead State on Saturday at 7 p.m.

The win is a hallmark occasion in that a newly arrived era of NKU basketball has earned its first success story, albeit a modest one, and that a foundation of winning has been put in place. This was an earned victory, perhaps beyond comfort for many of those inside BB&T Arena on Tuesday, but it showed the kind of grit this team is going to need to have in order to have the season it would like.

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor

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