Stunned: Northern Kentucky Bounced from Horizon League Tournament
Northern Kentucky will not repeat as champions of the Horizon League tournament, losing in its opening game Saturday night in Detroit to an upstart Cleveland State squad that refused to back down when the Norse took an early double-digit lead, and then racked up 61 points in the second half against the conference's best defense.
Cleveland State pulled away late and beat Northern Kentucky, 89 to 80 at Little Caesars Arena.
NKU head coach John Brannen called the loss disappointing and blamed a defensive collapse that started midway through the first half.
The Norse had beaten CSU twice in the regular season by 15 and 17 points, respectively. Midway through the first half on Saturday, NKU jumped out to a 21 to 6 lead, looking to repeat a double-digit win over the Vikings, who came into the tournament with the Horizon League's eighth-best record.
But the momentum began to swing at that moment and by halftime, Cleveland State (11-22) had cut NKU's lead to five, 33 to 28.
Throughout the second half, the teams traded baskets, and though the Vikings threatened and tied the game multiple times, it never took the lead until the final minutes.
And then CSU built upon that lead and the Norse couldn't answer.
Drew McDonald led the Norse with 24 points. Lavone Holland II added 15, while Dantez Walton and Carson Williams added 10 apiece.
Brannen will now prep his team for the program's first-ever appearance in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), a prize reserved for mid-major conference regular season champions that don't win their tournament.
"You have to live in the emotions you have right now," Brannen said he told his team after the game. "This program hasn't really been knocked on to its knees for a long time. This one is going to sting for a little bit. And it needs to. We'll go through it and we'll get better in it."
Brannen has NIT experience, having served as interim head coach at Alabama when the Crimson Tide played in it after parting ways with then-head coach Anthony Grant the season before Brannen was brought to Highland Heights.
The key, he said, is to be the most excited team in a tournament that is viewed as a consolation for those who do not get to play in the Big Dance.