After a steak dinner and a joyful bus ride home, the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team cut down the nets in BB&T Arena after clinching the Horizon League regular season title in a 75-56 win against IUPUI.
The victory topped off a season that saw the Norse collect 22 wins, 15 of them coming against conference opponents.
“It’s a big deal,” junior forward Drew McDonald said. “To win a regular season championship, it’s a grind. You’re getting every team’s best shot every time you go out there. Any time you have the ability to cut nets it’s something special.”
Originally, head coach John Brannen thought it would be a private team ceremony, but around 4 p.m. on Sunday he tweeted out that the ceremony would be a public event.
“We decided last night that if we were fortunate enough to win that we wanted to cut the nets and that it would be best if we came back to BB&T to do it,” Brannen said. “So we set that up, and the second thing was we canceled the normal pizza on the bus and we went to a nice restaurant.”
While a regular season title doesn’t guarantee the Norse a spot in the NCAA Tournament (unlike Power Five conference schools), Brannen considers it an even more impressive accomplishment than winning the postseason tournament.
“I think it’s the sign of a true championship,” Brannen said. “We are the champions of the Horizon League. To go 15-3 and 8-1 on the road in a conference like this is a testament to the trust, toughness and sacrifice of each individual player and coach in the organization.”
During the ceremony, about 100 family, friends and fans gathered around as each player cut (with varying degrees of success) a piece of the net away from the basketball rim. McDonald was the first player to cut the net.
After the net on the first basket came down, the players moved to the next basket, where Lavone Holland took a different approach and cut the bottom half of the net off instead of cutting a strand from the top.
“Last time—coach Brannen—I felt like he got a bigger piece than me,” Holland said. “I went home that night and was like ‘next time I gotta get a bigger piece.’ That was my opportunity.”
In his final season for the Norse, Holland said one of the team’s season goals was to win the regular season title.
“It was amazing to see it all come true,” Holland said. “I expected it. It’s a long process.”
Holland has been a difference-maker the last few games for NKU, scoring 25 points against UIC on Friday and tallying 17 points against IUPUI on Sunday.
“My teammates are giving me more confidence,” Holland said. “I can tell they believe in me and I don’t want to let them down.”
The Norse will now begin preparing for the Horizon League tournament in Detroit. They’ll play their first game on Saturday against the winner of the Youngstown State/Cleveland State matchup on Friday.
“We talk about playing our best basketball March 2 through 6,” Brannen said. “If you had asked me two weeks ago, I would have told you we weren’t playing our best basketball… I feel like we are now getting towards that.”
Tip-off on Saturday is scheduled for 8 p.m. on ESPN3.