DETROIT — In its first year as a full member of Division I, the NKU men’s basketball team is going dancing, and it has its defense to thank.
After five straight victories in which the Norse scored 80 or more points, it got the defensive stops it needed Tuesday to defeat Milwaukee 59-53 in the Horizon League championship game.
Northern Kentucky, winners of 10 of its last 11, earns the Horizon League’s automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament. And the Norse earned it with defense.
“These guys enjoy offense — we’re the second-ranked offensive team in the league,” NKU head coach John Brannen said. “We won the championship tonight with our defense. These guys bought into it.”
Brannen said defense was his team’s focus during the week leading up to the Horizon League championship. He said the team needed to be just a little better defensively.
“We told them we need to be (a little) better in outlasting the offense, meaning deep in the shot clock,” Brannen said. “We played a team tonight that forces you deep in the shot clock every possession.”
Both teams struggled to score as the tension mounted late. Cody Wichmann hit a three to cut the Milwaukee deficit to three, 54-51, with 1:11 left. It was as close as Milwaukee had been in 11 minutes.
Following an NKU timeout, the Norse worked the shot clock down. Drew McDonald hit a jumper with 42 seconds left to put NKU back up five.
Milwaukee’s Brock Stull answered with 32 seconds left, pulling the Panthers within three, 56-53.
Lavone Holland II, who would be named tournament MVP, was fouled. He made one free throw to put the Norse up four.
Milwaukee had three looks at a three to pull within a point, but missed both. Cole Murray grabbed the rebound and was fouled with three seconds left. By that point, the celebration had started.
Holland led the Norse with 20 points and six rebounds. Holland gave credit to both his coaches and teammates for their belief in him.
“The belief they have in me, it just makes me confident,” Holland said. “If I see an opening, I take it and play freely.”
McDonald had another double-double: 14 points and 12 rebounds.
The experience has been a dream come true for McDonald, who was quick to say the dream wasn’t over yet.
“We’re not done yet; we’ve still got another game to play,” McDonald. “It’s always been a dream of mine. If you would have asked me as a kid about taking Northern Kentucky to the dance, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy! First off, they’re Division II.’
“I’ve got chills just thinking about it.”
McDonald said the championship belonged to the everyone who supported the team.
“This championship is more than just the players and the coaches,” McDonald said. “It’s the whole school. It’s the community. The support they’ve given us the whole year. It’s Northern Kentucky’s championship.”
Stull led the Panthers with 19 points, while Prahl added 12. Milwaukee, which finished last in the Horizon League in the regular season, was looking for its fourth-straight upset win to steal the automatic bid.
Brannen, in just two years as the head coach of the Norse, has turned the program into a NCAA tournament team. He credits the players, who have passed every test he and his staff have placed in front of them.
“Every challenge myself and my coaching staff has put in front of them, they’ve attacked,” Brannen said. “You don’t get that all the time. That’s not typical of a team. I appreciate these guys.”
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
At Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Michigan
Horizon League championship game
Northern Kentucky 59, Milwaukee 53
M — 28 – 25 — 53
N — 31 – 28 — 59
(53) MILWAUKEE (fg-3fg-ft-tp) Prahl 6-0-0-12, Stull 6-2-5-19, Johnson 1-0-0-2, Wichmann 2-1-2-7, Haas 1-0-0-2, Barnes 1-1-0-3, Bell 1-0-0-2, Nze 3-0-0-6. TOTALS 21-4-7-53.
(59) NORTHERN KENTUCKY (fg-3fg-ft-tp) Garnett 2-0-2-6, Williams 3-0-1-7, McDonald 6-2-0-14, Murray 2-2-2-8, Holland 7-2-4-20, Garrett 1-0-0-2, Faulkner 1-0-0-2. TOTALS 22-6-9-59.
FIELD GOALS: M 21/58 (Prahl 6/11, Stull 6/14); N 22/53 (Holland 7/15, McDonald 6/17)
3 POINT FIELD GOALS: M 4/18 (Stull 2/3); N 6/21 (McDonald 2/7, Murray 2/6, Holland 2/6)
FREE THROWS: M 7/9 (Stull 5/5); N 9/12 (Holland 4/6)
REBOUNDS: M 30 (Wichmann 7, Prahl 5); N 38 (McDonald 12, Holland 6, Williams 5)
ASSISTS: M 10 (Haas 5); N 11 (Holland 4)
STEALS: M 4; N 3
BLOCKED SHOTS: M 0; N 4 (Murray 2)
TURNOVERS: M 8; N 11