Russell: Northern Kentucky University basketball poised for bright future

After Northern Kentucky University’s milestone men’s basketball season drew to a close Friday in the NCAA tournament, sophomore Drew McDonald made sure to salute Norse fans before leaving the court.

He soon realized they were thanking him.

“It just hit me. I looked up and saw my dad specifically. He gave me the thumbs up, and that’s what put a tear in my eye, really, just to realize the impact we’ve put on our community and the university as a whole,” McDonald said.  

Second-seeded Kentucky ousted 15th-seeded NKU in a 79-70 outing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and yet the Norse were richer because of it. In the time-honored way that sports have galvanized communities, NKU reaped the benefits of support by fans, family and alumni.

Last year the team won nine games under first-year coach John Brannen. With a youthful roster in tow, Horizon League coaches pegged the Norse to finish seventh in the 10-team league before this season’s start.

NKU (24-11) ultimately nabbed the fourth seed in the Horizon League Championship, Motor City Madness, before knocking off Wright State, Youngstown State and Milwaukee in three consecutive days in Detroit. Its reward was the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The timing was remarkable. This was the first year NKU was even eligible for the Big Dance after reclassifying from Division II, a process that took four years to complete.

Only six other teams in NCAA history have ever clinched a bid in their first year of eligibility, and only two including NKU have done so since 1970.

The fearlessness and grit the Norse showed during the league tournament paved the way for a Selection Sunday watch party on campus. Flanked by 500 fans and CBS cameras, the latter on hand for a live look-in during the national broadcast, NKU learned it would play its in-state foe.

The way Brannen prepared the Norse for Kentucky was a microcosm of the season. In any first-round game, whether it’s the conference tournament or NCAA tournament, he said the biggest factor is playing hard.

The Norse’s moxie showed against the Wildcats even when their shots didn’t fall.

Kentucky, jam-packed with talent and size and athleticism, never surged ahead by more than 18 points. And NKU, paced by Holland (22 points) and Williams (21 points, nine rebounds), rallied to make it an eight-point affair late in the game.

Kentucky staved off an upset bid as the Norse struggled to connect from long range. They missed 10 of their 15 perimeter attempts in the second half and went 8-for-32 from three (25 percent) throughout the game.

“We were the best shooting team in the Horizon League the entire season,” Brannen said. “Tonight was not our night from the 3-point line. I’d liked to have seen what happened if we had made a few more.”

Regardless of the outcome of Friday’s game, the program from Highland Heights, Ky. won big by playing on a national stage and acquitting itself nicely against a basketball Goliath.

And now, while the season is over, the team’s work is not. Brannen said the Norse’s charge is to build on the current momentum. The NCAA tournament game will serve as an important building block for years to come, a source of inspiration and impetus for loftier expectations.

“The only way to do that is to continue to get out, win championships the way we have, continue to recruit and get these young men in front our community,” Brannen said. “They represent Northern Kentucky the right way.”

The second-year coach expects the taste of the NCAA tournament to whet the appetites of Norse players moving forward. The good news for NKU is that the core of its roster returns next year, including scoring leaders McDonald, Lavone Holland II and Carson Williams.

“We’ve got a tremendous group coming back, and hopefully they’ll continue to buy into what we’re doing and continue to be committed to each other as much as they were this year,” Brannen said.

Few could be prouder than Norse fans themselves, many of whom made the drive to Indiana to root on the team. Their support meant the world to McDonald.

“It just struck me,” he said of the warm reception after the loss. “And I just can’t thank Norse Nation enough.”

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