Norse live to dance another day, claim Horizon championship win over Cleveland State
March 8, 2023
Six years to the date when they won in their first appearance in a Horizon League Championship game, the NKU men’s basketball team took center stage yet again on the conference’s biggest stage to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament Tuesday night.
And punch their ticket they would.
Riding off the energy of the Norse faithful huddled inside of Indiana Farmers Coliseum, NKU would book their third trip to the big dance and claim their fourth Horizon League title in thrilling fashion, knocking off Cleveland State in a 63-61 affair.
Despite being out-shot by the Vikings on the offensive side of the floor, the difference for the Norse fell upon their tenacious defense as one of the most prolific teams in the nation in the steals department forced 14 of them and 17 total turnovers that resulted in 21 points. Junior guard Marques Warrick scored 18 points and traveled to the line six different times in the game, going 11-for-13 in his outings at the charity stripe en route to being named tournament MVP. Sam Vinson and Xavier Rhodes were also instrumental pieces in the victory as the former went 6-for-12 from the field with 16 points, five rebounds, and three steals, and the latter followed that by using his blistering speed on both ends of the ball to score nine points and grab two steals.
Much like in the final minutes of the semifinal matchup against Youngstown State Monday night, Warrick and Vinson fed off each other throughout much of the game.
“It’s the championship game, this is where stars and big players make big plays, especially coming down the stretch,” Warrick said of the dynamic duo’s performance. “Sam and I knew that the ball would be in our hands, and when it was, we just stayed poised and confident.”
“Our team needs me and Marques to go out there and make big plays, and when I see Ques go and make a big play, it gets me going too,” Vinson added. “We kind of just feed off each other, we’re just looking for shots, just getting our reactions going, and just fire open shots.”
After mentioning the key performances that headlined the night in the postgame presser, NKU head coach Darrin Horn mentioned something that the stat sheet didn’t show—the sticktoitiveness of his players, especially that of of veteran leader and Horizon League Sixth Man of the Year Trevon Faulkner, who decided to return to Highland Heights last March to avenge last year’s loss on the same stage.
“There aren’t many guys who would come back in his situation to the same school or hitting the [transfer] portal, and he came back just to play with his teammates and to try and win again, even if you are to come off the bench,” Horn said. “I’m just happy for him and these guys we have recruited and continue to build our program and play in the NCAA tournament, and I’m really happy for our fans.”
Vinson would get the Norse on the board first at the 18:22 mark with a three-point play set up by a fast-break layup and a shooting foul by CSU’s Tristan Enaruna. After Drew Lowder evened the score with a three ball and Enaruna made up for his mistake by hitting two free throws following a foul from Chris Brandon, Warrick put NKU back in front before the first media timeout with a stepback three.
With over 11 minutes remaining in the half, Brandon would pick up his second foul and was forced to take a seat as Cleveland State eliminated a key rebounding threat for Northern. The Norse responded by targeting Vikings guard Deshon Parker and forcing him into foul trouble with seven and a half minutes to go.
It would continue to be a seesaw affair throughout much of the first as nine leads were exchanged between the two teams, with the largest margin by either team coming at 8:19 when Enaruna made a fastbreak layup to make it a four-point game. NKU would force four turnovers in the last three and a half minutes on their way to retaking the pilot’s seat in the final minute of the half, as a three-pointer by Trey Robinson and two free throws from Warrick gave the Norse a 33-30 advantage as the two teams headed into the locker room.
The Norse and Vikings remained on an even pace through the first 4:46 of the second half before NKU really found their groove, rattling off a 13-6 run that concluded with 10:20 remaining on a Robinson three to extend the Norse lead to six.
Cleveland State certainly wasn’t in the business of just handing the momentum over though, as the Vikings would completely shut down Northern’s offense for the next five and a half minutes, keeping the black and gold off the board on their last six field goal attempts and forcing three turnovers. A shot from beyond the arc from Deshon Parker would bring CSU within two of tying the game.
However, the comeback attempt from the Vikings would prove to be too little, too late; jumpers from Robinson and Vinson and four made free throws from Warrick later, the Norse had a 63-56 lead in tow with 16 seconds remaining. CSU would receive one last gasp on a layup from Parker and a three ball from Lowder as the closing seconds ticked off the clock, but the Norse would ultimately close the book on their tournament demons.
The Norse will have four days to celebrate the win before finding out where they will be seeded in the NCAA tournament. Despite the bigger stage that the bright lights of March Madness presents, Horn said that the approach for his team will consist of much of the same as it’s been all year long – pushing the pace.