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Photos & Reaction: NKU Falls to Louisville in NIT

"What we've done, what these seniors have done over the past two years, what our young men in that locker room have done, is historic. It just hasn't happened before. To go post-season in your first two years eligible, to compete against Kentucky and Louisville and to go all the way down to the end of the game, in close games, we'll build upon it."

Northern Kentucky head coach John Brannen noted after Tuesday night's loss to Louisville that the Norse lived up to its mantra of "On The Rise" by igniting a fanbase and drawing national attention the past two seasons. NKU is the first program to qualify for national post-season tournaments in its first two seasons eligible. 

The end of the 2018 campaign could have been viewed with disappointment. The Norse, after all, had conquered the Horizon League in the regular season, claiming the conference title with its 15-3 record.

But at the league tournament in Detroit, heralded as the top seed, the Norse were bounced early in a stunning loss to eighth-seeded Cleveland State.

A faltering Louisville squad that had hoped to claim a spot in the NCAA Tournament instead found itself in the National Invitation Tournament, setting up a sequel for NKU after last year's Cinderella run (by way of the Horizon League tournament title) to the Big Dance where it faced the other standard-bearer of college basketball in the Bluegrass State, Kentucky.

Both times, Northern Kentucky fought against its underdog status and threatened to upend its larger, deeper opponent - each with their raucous crowds and rafters full of banners. But both times the Norse stumbled late, shots were missed, the ball was turned over, and NKU was returned to Highland Heights.

But a program "on the rise" will continue to climb, Brannen promised on Tuesday night after the upset bid fell short.

"This will be a program that continues to win championships and continues to push forward that way," Brannen said, "and continue to build our brand in the state of Kentucky and beyond the region. And I couldn't be more proud of the young men in that locker room. They're the reason we're here."

The Norse went toe to toe with the Cardinals early in the game and then bolted out to a halftime lead of 30 to 23. Louisville, which had been dogged by media coverage suggesting that the team did not want to compete in the second-tier post-season tournament, came out swinging in the second half, though. A boisterous crowd at the KFC Yum Center in downtown Louisville was credited by UofL head coach David Padgett for propelling the team back into the game.

A 13-0 run that started late in the third quarter (in this year's NIT, the games feature quarters instead of halves, among other experimental rules) that extended into the fourth put the Cards up ten with 6:28 to play.

NKU (22-10) got back within five with 2:24 remaining, but Louisville (21-13) scored the next five points and put the game out of reach.

Drew McDonald led the Norse, notching his eighteenth double-double of the season with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Lavone Holland II added 15.

Written by Michael Monks with photos by Brian Frey

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