DETROIT -- The only team to defeat the NKU men's basketball team in the last nine games stood in its way of a Horizon League championship game appearance.
With a chance at redemption and a berth in the final on the line, NKU had all the motivation it needed against Youngstown State.
The Norse never trailed Monday night, and they withstood a late Penguin push to defeat Youngstown State 84-74 in the Horizon League semifinals at Joe Louis Arena.
In their first year of NCAA Division I tournament eligibility, the Norse (23-12) are one win away from securing the Horizon League automatic bid.
NKU will play either Illinois-Chicago or Milwaukee 7 p.m. Tuesday in the championship. The game will be televised by ESPN.
Although the stakes of the game were more than enough motivation for the Norse, the players had not forgotten the Feb. 18 loss in Youngstown.
Lavone Holland called it a "redemption game." Drew McDonald agreed.
"Definitely in the back of our mind, we owed them something," McDonald said. "We went there on their senior night, and they got us there."
Although revenge was on their minds, the chance to play for a NCAA tournament bid was the strongest motivation.
"I think it was more our goals we had at the beginning of the season and advancing to the next round and giving ourselves a chance to play in a conference championship game," McDonald said. "We've said from day one we want to play our best basketball in March.
"I think we're doing it right now, and we're going to continue doing it tomorrow."
NKU led by as many as 16 with 6:50 remaining. Youngstown State fought back with a 20-9 surge over the next 3:57 to pull within five, 79-74.
After Dantez Walton missed the front end of the 1-and-1, Drew McDonald grabbed the offensive rebound. Later in the possession, Walton buried a three to put NKU up eight with 1:38 left. The Penguins never threatened again.
McDonald led the Norse with 26 points and nine rebounds. Holland added 20 points. NKU led in second-chance points 18-6, despite being outrebounded on the offensive glass 11-9.
Cameron Morse led Youngstown State with 28 points. Francisco Santiago added 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
For McDonald and head coach John Brannen, both Northern Kentucky natives, the opportunity to lead the Norse to the Horizon League championship game is special to both of them.
"For me, when I took the job, it was all about providing something Northern Kentucky could be excited about in college basketball," Brannen said. "There's a lot of pride in the area. It's a basketball-crazy region."
McDonald and the Norse are 40 minutes away from fulfilling a childhood dream.
"Growing up, it has always been my dream to go to the NCAA tournament," McDonald said. "When Coach Brannen got the job, he called me that first night. He told us in the locker room, 'We're going to win a championship with some of the guys in the locker room.' He didn't know when it would be.
"We believed. We bought in, and it's been a team effort from there."
Monday, March 6, 2017
At Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Michigan
Horizon League Semifinal
Northern Kentucky 84, Youngstown State 74
Y -- 27 - 47 -- 74
N -- 42 - 42 -- 84
(74) YOUNGSTOWN STATE (fg-3fg-ft-tp) Donlan 5-4-0-14, Kaufman 2-0-1-5, Hartfield 4-0-1-9, Santiago 7-1-0-15, Morse 10-3-5-28, Haygood 1-0-1-3. TOTALS 29-8-8-74.
(84) NORTHERN KENTUCKY (fg-3fg-ft-tp) Garnett 3-1-0-7, Williams 2-0-0-4, McDonald 10-4-2-26, Murray 1-1-0-3, Holland 7-3-3-20, Garrett 1-0-2-4, Faulkner 4-2-0-10, Gillis 1-0-0-2, Walton 2-2-2-8. TOTALS 31-13-9-84.
FIELD GOALS: Y 29/65 (Morse 10/24, Santiago 7/13, Donlan 5/10); N 31/62 (McDonald 10/20, Holand 7/15, Faulkner 4/8)
3 POINT FIELD GOALS: Y 8/18 (Donlan 4/5, Morse 3/8); N 13/27 (McDonald 4/9, Holland 3/3)
FREE THROWS: Y 8/14 (Morse 5/6); N 9/12 (Holland 3/5)
REBOUNDS: Y 36 (Santiago 9, Donlan 6, Hartfield 6); N 37 (McDonald 9, Walton 6, Murray 4, Holland 4)
ASSISTS: Y 13 (Santiago 7); N 11 (Holland 3, Faulkner 3)
STEALS: Y 6; N 6 (Holland 3)
BLOCKED SHOTS: Y 3 (Hartfield 2); N 2
TURNOVERS: Y 12; N 11
Matt Sexton is the editor-in-chief of The Northerner, NKU's student newspaper.