Starting to come together

Chris Knight’s career-high 21 points led the way to a convincing 72-54 rout of Missouri S&T on Feb. 6 for Northern Kentucky University’s men’s basketball team’s second-straight win. NKU is now 13-10 overall with a 6-8 Great Lakes Valley Conference record.

The Norse came into Homecoming weekend fresh off a 65-61 win over 14th-ranked Drury (18-4, 9-2 GLVC) on Feb. 4. Senior center David Palmer led the team in scoring and rebounding against Drury as he posted 16 points and pulled down 17 rebounds. Along with his offensive productivity inside, Palmer also made his presence known on the defensive side of the ball with five blocks. Junior guard Dennis Gagai contributed 14 points for the Norse and Knight added 10 points of his own.

Defense was key for the Norse against Drury, limiting the Panthers to 37 percent shooting from the field, forcing 13 turnovers and blocking seven shots.

“Tonight we didn’t foul as much,” said Coach Dave Bezold. “We’re a pretty good defensive team because David Palmer makes it difficult for the other team. If we cut down the fouls, we can beat anybody we run into.”

Defense seemed to be lacking for the Black and Gold in the opening minutes, though, as Drury shot out to a 12-4 lead. After a few traded baskets, Gagai stepped up and drained two three-pointers to bring the Norse to within three. A three-pointer by sophomore guard Tony Rack gave the Norse their first lead with just two minutes to play in the first half. Both teams went into the locker rooms with the score tied at 25-all.

Everything clicked for NKU after the halftime break, as they compiled a 14-2 run over Drury to give them a comfortable lead 39-27. Eight minutes into the second half Drury’s Alex Hall, who leads the team in points per game, was ejected after his second technical foul. He finished with five points, which is 13 below his season average.

Drury made a late charge to get back in the game when junior guard Chase Elliot made two free throws with just over a minute left. His second made free throw capped off an 11-2 run that cut the Norse advantage to four, 62-58. Drury began to foul in an attempt to extend the game, but Palmer made two free throws for the Norse with 23 seconds left to give NKU a 64-58 lead. Drury hit a late three, but was unable to get any closer and the Norse led 65-61.

Heading into Homecoming’s basketball game, the Norse faced a scrappy but tough Missouri S&T team. Knight came out aggressively and made six straight points to start the game.

“I’m starting to understand the motion,” Knight said. “Last year we (Bowling Green State University) ran mostly sets, but we run motion here. It takes awhile to get to learn everyone’s movements but I’m starting to get it now.”

The run didn’t stop there as NKU jumped out to a 10-0 lead in just four minutes of play, prompting a time out by the Missouri S&T coaching staff. NKU scored again after the time out on an Erik Stenger jumper at the 16:13 mark, but Missouri S&T finally got on the board a minute later. The Norse never looked back from their initial run, out-rebounding Missouri S&T by 20 and shooting 48 percent from the field and 38 percent from behind the arc for the game – all of which were large factors in their 18-point victory.
Palmer took advantage of the size mismatches the defense threw at him and he finished the game with 17 points and 14 rebounds for his second double-double of the weekend and seventh of the season. Tony Rack contributed nine points off the bench, hitting 3-7 from downtown.

“It’s coming down to crunch time and we’re trying to get a spot to go to the NCAA tournament,” Knight said. “We know we have the team to do it, because we’ve beaten the number thirteen team and the number one ranked team in the region, so we’re trying to keep up with our intensity.”

NKU went to the line 26 times and connected on 19 of their free-throw attempts. They limited their fouls to only 13 for the game, which significantly reduced the number of easy opportunities from the charity stripe for the Miners.

“I think we’re starting to come together, I really, really do,” Bezold said. “There’s confidence, they’re starting to understand their roles and you can see it coming and we’re coming at the right time. We just have to be tougher, we really do, and I think we’re starting to figure out and what it means to be that.”

The Norse visit archrival Bellarmine on Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. Bellarmine defeated NKU 74-69 in their last meeting on Jan. 23.

“We just cleared the conference and now we get to go inside our division and finish this off with four games,”Bezold said. “Two really tough on the road, and two really tough at home, so now we get to see what we’re made of. I think this team is ready to step up to whatever challenges we face and handle them.”

Story by Drew Laskey