The Wright State Raiders men’s basketball team defeated the Northern Kentucky Norse 64-62 on Friday night, writing another chapter in what has become a storied rivalry in the Horizon League.
With the victory, Wright State has clinched the regular-season championship in the Horizon League standings and earned the number-one seed in the Horizon League Tournament.
For the Norse, redshirt junior guard Jalen Tate led the way with 24 points while also grabbing down nine rebounds and turning the ball over just twice in 34 minutes of action. Senior forward Dantez Walton, in his last game in front of the home crowd at BB&T Arena, was second on the team with 15 points.
Throughout the game, the Norse had no answer on the defensive side for Wright State center Loudon Love, who finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds on the evening.
Love was particularly effective early in the contest, as the junior contributed 13 of the Raiders’ first 16 points, most of which came from around the basket.
Despite the early dominance from Love in the post, the first half remained a closely contested affair, as both teams went on scoring runs that lasted for several minutes each. After a quick 7-2 start from Wright State, NKU answered back with a 6-0 run to take the lead back before the first media timeout. The Raiders would answer back later in the half with a 9-0 run, capped off just before the under 12-minute media timeout.
Wright State entered Friday’s game as the best shooting team in the Horizon League, but the Norse were successful in defending the perimeter against the Raiders, particularly in the first half where Wright State shot just 2-of-9 from 3-point range.
The Norse were able to slow down Wright State’s 3-point attack and neutralize key players like Tanner Holden and Bill Wampler, setting the Norse up to trail at halftime 36-29—despite shooting an even worse 2-of-14 from 3-point range.
In the second half, the Norse were able to stay composed and began to play more physical with the Raiders, enabling them to climb back into the game on the scoreboard.
“It was a hard-fought game. I am really proud of our guys because there were a couple of times when the [deficit] got to seven and nine, and they didn’t let that happen,” NKU head coach Darrin Horn said.
Wright State got out to another hot start coming out of the locker room to begin the second half, stretching their lead to 11 points. But an NKU timeout rejuvenated the Norse as they began to claw their way back into the game.
For much of the second half, the Wright State lead stayed comfortably in the seven to nine-point range. The Norse were staying in the contest but unable to find a spark to erase the middling deficit.
With just under nine minutes remaining, on his Senior Night (along with fellow teammates Tyler Sharpe and Karl Harris), Walton canned a 3-pointer off an assist from sophomore guard Bryson Langdon, bringing the lead back down to seven and rejuvenating a jam-packed BB&T Arena that had laid dormant for much of the evening.
Three straight layups from Tate and Walton brought the Wright State lead to just two points, prompting the crowd of 6,776 fans to erupt into the one of the craziest frenzies of the 2019-20 season at BB&T Arena.
“Our crowd was terrific. I can’t thank them enough for being into it, and that kept us in [the game], so I am thankful and appreciate of all our fans,” Horn said.
In the final two minutes, with Wright State leading by six points, it came time for the Norse to foul the Raiders and send them to the free-throw line with the hopes of extending the game with each Raider miss. The Norse put an emphasis on trying to send Love to the free-throw line, who missed five key free throws down the stretch.
As a result of those missed opportunities—as well as timely baskets on the offensive end from Tate and sophomore wing Trevon Faulkner—the Norse remained competitive until the final second but were unable to close out the victory. As time expired, Sharpe threw up a half-court heave but was unsuccessful.
Coach Horn spoke highly of Walton and the rest of the senior class that is on their way out the door—including one of the most accomplished players in Norse history, Sharpe.
“I don’t think you can say enough about what Tyler and Dantez have done for the program. They both essentially helped put Northern Kentucky University basketball on the map and made us relevant, not only in our league, but even nationally,” Horn said.
For the players, a loss in the last home game of the season—to a bitter rival no less—is a tough pill to swallow, but the team remains focused on the goal at hand: returning to the NCAA Tournament in March.
“We are a completely different team than we were earlier in the season, and we just need to continue to strive, and get better by the day,” Walton said.
With the regular season in the Horizon League now concluded, the second-place Norse will now turn their attention to the Horizon League Tournament, where the winner will be granted an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Horizon League Tournament begins March 3, but because of their status as the number-two seeds, NKU will earn an automatic trip to the semi-final round on March 9 at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis. It is currently unknown who the Norse will take on in the tournament.
The semi-final game can be seen on ESPN2 at 9:30 p.m., while the Championship game on March 10 can be watched or streamed on ESPN.