INDIANAPOLIS -- Northern Kentucky made the nation take notice, but it could not pull the monumental upset.
A 13-0 run late in the first half gave Kentucky the breathing room it needed, and the Wildcats went on to defeat the Norse 79-70 Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“We knew we had a tremendous challenge on our hands,” NKU head coach John Brannen said. “For us, it needed to be a situation where we out-competed Kentucky. I’m not saying we did that ... just didn’t make shots. Tonight was not our night from the three-point line.
“I’d like to have seen what happened if we had made a few more.”
NKU made just 8 of 32 from three-point range – and only 3 of 17 in the first half.
Kentucky was not able to bury Northern Kentucky like many pundits had predicted. When Kentucky pushed its lead to 18 with 17:30 left, it looked as if the Wildcats would run away with it.
However, Northern Kentucky hung around, getting defensive stops at one end and knocking down big shots at the other.
After the Norse got its deficit down to 12 with 5:51 left, NKU missed four straight shots, including three attempts from beyond the arc.
Once again, the Norse scrapped and hung around. Baskets by Drew McDonald and Lavone Holland II pulled NKU with eight with 2:02 remaining.
NKU would get no closer as Kentucky would finally finish the Norse off from the free throw line.
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Holland led the Norse with 22 points and played a fearless style that carried over to his teammates. He took the ball right at Kentucky and found success.
“Really, just the no-fear thing comes from what Coach said -- toughness,” Holland said. “We feel we’re a tough ballclub, and we show it every night.”
Carson Williams added 21 points and nine rebounds. He had just four points and three rebounds in the first half.
“At halftime, Coach just mentioned to me that I didn’t seem like myself on the court,” Williams said. “So in the second half, I came out with more of an attack and toughness mindset, and that’s what made the difference.”
McDonald had 14 points. While the Norse walked off the floor to a standing ovation from the fans who made the trip to Indianapolis, McDonald walked over to return the favor.
“The weird thing was when I got over there, I was clapping, they were thanking me,” McDonald said. “I saw people saying thank you. It just hit me. I looked up and I saw my dad specifically, and he gave me a thumbs up, and that’s what put a tear in my eye.
“Just to realize the impact we’ve put on our community and the university as a whole. It just ... it struck me. And I just can’t thank Norse Nation enough.”
De’Aaron Fox led four Wildcats in double figures with 19.
The loss in the first round of the NCAA South Region ends NKU’s season at 24-11. However, the Norse gained the respect of college basketball fans and Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“You have to give Northern credit,” Calipari said. “The thing that they did all season is make threes. And what I said at halftime, the one thing I’m worried about is they missed a bunch of threes that they normally make, or the game would have been closer.
“And then late in the game, they made them all. So they made the game close.”
The tournament run has energized more than a basketball program. The entire NKU campus, along with a basketball-crazed region, embraced the Norse.
“Our goal when we took over the program ... was to bring a championship to this community,” Brannen said. “With that, we have to continue that momentum. 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 of our community.
“They represent Northern Kentucky the right way.”
UK plays 10th-seeded Wichita State Sunday. The Shockers, undefeated since January, beat Dayton 64-58.