The Independent Student Newspaper of Northern Kentucky University.

A run for their money: Valiant effort falls short for Norse in Round of 64 loss to Houston

March 17, 2023

Normally when the central part of an underdog team’s game plan isn’t working, it entails that they’ll end up losing by a significant margin. And normally when you’re a 16-seed going up against one of the best teams in the NCAA in the month of March, that expectation goes up even further. 

For the NKU men’s basketball team Thursday night in their 16-versus-1-seed matchup against the Houston Cougars, that central part of the game plan was sinking the three-point shot. The Norse went 5-for-33 on the night from beyond the arc, yet for 40 minutes they gave the Associated Press’ number two team in the nation a fight to the bitter end as they dropped a 63-52 contest to the Cougars.

For the Norse, no star shined brighter than Sam Vinson, who led the team in points with 15 while tying his season high in total rebounds with eight, with five of them coming on the offensive boards for four of NKU’s 21 second-chance points. Chris Brandon’s effort on the boards was also to be commended as the fifth-year forward corralled 14 of them, a team tournament record. And although Marques Warrick spent most of the game struggling to find the mark on his shots, the junior guard never backed down and helped to give his team a push in the second half, where he scored all nine of his points and went a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw line.

Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson gave NKU’s team and head coach Darrin Horn some big praise following the game, complimenting the heart and strategy employed by the Norse throughout the game. 

“I don’t coach Northern Kentucky, but I was proud of their team tonight,” Sampson said. “They fought, they’re well coached, their kids are tough, they’re smart, they’re old with a bunch of grad kids and seniors, I was impressed. They play a style that forces you to have to play subjectively— it’s concepts, and concepts equals basketball IQ, you’ve got to be really smart to play against that stuff.”

But Houston’s size and depth was just too much for the Norse to handle. Forwards Jarace Walker and J’Wan Roberts combined for 27 points on offense and three blocked shots for the Cougars, with the latter having an especially impressive night going off for a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds. And despite losing Marcus Sasser to a re-aggravated groin injury in the closing minutes of the first half, UH would find ways to fill in the scoring normally produced with the senior phenom with Jamal Shead and Emanuel Sharp.

The Norse would match the Cougars blow-for-blow into the first media timeout. Xavier Rhodes would get NKU on the board first with a fastbreak layup followed by four points from Walker, but Vinson would respond for the Norse by sinking a three. The two teams would exchange triples as Sasser and Trey Robinson sank one each, but Shead would give Houston the 9-8 lead with a two.

After being fouled by Sharp, two free throws from Rhodes would put the Norse back in front, and a layup from Brandon would give Northern their biggest advantage of the night with a three-point lead at 12:29.

Houston wouldn’t allow the Norse to hang on to the lead for long though. The two teams played tug o’ war for the scoreboard over the next five minutes before six unanswered points put the Cougars back in front with 6:42 left in the half.NKU would stay within striking distance for the remainder of the first, pulling within one with 1:28 left before Sasser was removed for injury. After a surprising three-point attempt by Brandon with 45 seconds remaining, Shead would hit a jumper and give Houston a three point lead heading into the locker room.

It would continue to be a back-and-forth affair through the opening five minutes of the second half before Houston began to pull away. The Norse couldn’t catch a break from the field and paid dearly for it as the Cougars went on a 9-2 run capped off by a three from Sharp at 10:50.

The Norse continued to run with UH for around six more minutes as they brought the game to within five with four and a half minutes remaining on a long three from Warrick. After a Walker dunk, free throws by Warrick would once again cut the NKU deficit to five, but it just wasn’t enough to stop Shead, Walker and Sharp down the final stretch.

Despite the loss and the end of the season, it concludes a historic and unprecedented year for the Norse in which they put the pieces together at the right time to go on an unforgettable run to college basketball’s biggest stage. Trevon Faulkner, who played his final game in a NKU uniform Thursday, said that although he wishes the team could have made history with another shocking upset this year, he is thankful for the support from Northern fans.

“Thank you for everything, thank you for the ride that we had,” Faulkner said. “We got a championship like we said, but I wish we would’ve got this dub, but it’s all good.”

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