Norse orchestrate dramatic comeback to defeat Cleveland State, earn fifth straight win
NKU trailed by 14 in the second half before storming back
January 30, 2022
Down 14 points with just over 13 minutes remaining, the Northern Kentucky men’s basketball team completely flipped the script against the Cleveland State Vikings on Sunday, closing the game on a 39-19 run to defeat the Vikings 78-72 and improve to 7-4 in Horizon League play.
The Vikings and third-year head coach Dennis Gates have one of the oldest teams in the nation, do not make many mistakes, and force their opponent into making plenty of them, three hallmarks of a team that could find themselves still playing in the middle of March.
Entering Sunday, Cleveland State was 8-0 when leading at the half, and throughout the season have demonstrated that they are once again a threat to win the Horizon League, after winning both the regular season and tournament championships in 2020-21.
But in the second half on Sunday, it was the Norse, now winners of five consecutive games, that looked like one of the most complete teams in the Horizon League.
“I told our guys after the game that we just keep responding to challenges, and I think going back to the UIC game (Jan. 20) and moving forward, every game has presented a very unique, different challenge for us and our guys have responded,” head coach Darrin Horn said.
Cleveland State began the game on a quick 8-3 run before the first media timeout, with all eight of those points coming in fastbreak. The Vikings’ length and athleticism ⎯ all five starters stand at least 6’4” ⎯ clearly frustrated the Norse as they committed four turnovers within the first six minutes of action.
Sophomore guard Marques Warrick connected on three triples in the first nine minutes of the game, including a shot off of an offensive rebound that closed the Norse deficit to 17-12.
Moments later, senior guard Trevon Faulkner and Warrick knocked down threes on consecutive possessions to bring NKU within one, 19-18. Free throws on the ensuing possession by freshman guard Sam Vinson gave the Norse their first lead since the score was 1-0 in the first minute.
Warrick, whose brilliant 23-point performance helped guide the Norse over Wright State on Tuesday night, led the Norse with 12 points at halftime, but the complexion of the first half was changed by a 15-8 Cleveland State run in the final 6:18 of the first half, giving them a 36-30 advantage.
Cleveland State shot 53.6 percent from the field in the first half and 37.5 percent from three. The Vikings outscored NKU 13-0 in fast break points, 24-6 in the paint and turned the ball over just four times.
A 12-5 run from the Vikings in the first 4:12 of the second half created a 13-point deficit for the Norse, fueled in part by NKU connecting on just two of their seven field goal opportunities in that time frame.
But as they have numerous times this season, the Norse fought back in the second half, with Sunday’s latest iteration perhaps their most impressive comeback yet. First, Vinson hit a three, then Faulkner hit one, and after another jumper by Faulkner, Warrick knocked down a triple.
A transition layup from Vinson forced the Vikings to call a timeout with their lead diminished to just 59-54. A field goal by senior guard Bryson Langdon and yet another three by Faulkner tied the game at 59 as the BB&T Arena crowd erupted.
Two more defensive stops and two more buckets from Vinson put the Norse in the lead 63-59 , and put the exclamation point on an incredible 13-0 run that spanned nearly five minutes.
“In the locker room (at halftime) we were just preaching being aggressive on both ends,” Langdon said. “I feel like we came out a little flat, Sunday game, we just had to flip our mentality and we did.”
Moments later, the lead would grow even further on the strength of one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation, junior forward Chris Brandon. A three-point attempt by Warrick missed the mark, but Brandon grabbed one of his five offensive rebounds of the day and stuck it back in for the and-one basket.
Brandon, who entered Sunday ranked ninth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, has been an integral part of the Norse rotation, averaging 4.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game entering Sunday.
“Every game I just try to do what I can to help my team win,” Brandon said. “Whether that’s rebounds, passing the ball, finishing, whatever we need to do to win.”
The Vikings entered the game 14-4 overall and 10-1 in the Horizon League. They were not going to go down quietly down the stretch.
A three by guard D’Moi Hodge brought the Vikings within one with just over two minutes remaining, and a pair of Broc Finstuen free throws did the same with just over a minute to go.
The Norse needed a basket, and their senior point guard Langdon, a player that has shown a penchant for making plays when the Norse needed them, delivered once again. With the shot clock winding down, Langdon had only one shot, a jumper over a defender as contact was made.
Basket good. And-one. BB&T Arena in a frenzy.
Langdon buried the free throw, delivering the dagger to the Vikings as the Norse closed out a 78-72 win that did not seem likely early in the second half. Warrick led the Norse with 19 points, Vinson chipped in 18, Faulkner scored 14 and Brandon grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds.
“We feel like we can be in these games and win them of course, when everybody contributes and plays well,” Horn said.
As the Norse were orchestrating their second half comeback, the Cincinnati Bengals, led by their star quarterback Joe Burrow, were preparing for their first AFC Championship Game since 1988, taking on the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
In the final seconds with the Vikings looking to foul, the Norse needed to get the ball inbounds and turned to the player that could have the most success throwing a deep, cross-court pass, sophomore guard Jake Evans.
In the huddle, Horn said the team jokingly called Evans by a new name in honor of the Bengals’ signal-caller: ‘Jake Burrow’.
Evans looked down the court and pump faked as he looked to attempt the long pass but ended up hitting Langdon for a short pass in front of the Cleveland State bench. According to Horn, Evans told teammates after the game that the deep shot wasn’t there, and he had to check down to his teammate Langdon for the short pass, as many NFL quarterbacks often choose to do when a play breaks down.
NKU took care of their game on this Championship Sunday, and with another tough Horizon League opponent in Oakland coming to town on Thursday, the Norse are playing their most inspired basketball of the season over the past five games.
“I feel like it was pretty big for us to win this game, especially to come back from how much we were down from, it was pretty big for us,” Brandon said.