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Highland Heights, Ky. — Northern Kentucky men’s basketball legends such as all-time leading scorer Drew McDonald and all-time winningest coach Ken Shields had front-row seats to the biggest win in NKU’s home, Truist Arena.
McDonald was sitting courtside while Shields and members of his family were in the fourth row of Section 110 a few feet behind McDonald.
McDonald was directing NKU fans behind him to stand and cheer during the final stretches of NKU’s 64-51 win over the favored University of Cincinnati Bearcats.
After the game, he embraced members of the team as they left the floor for their locker room. And he joined NKU students at center court as they stormed the court and stayed long after fans left.
Shields, who led NKU to the Division II national championship game twice, took it all in from his seat. As he and his family left Truist Arena, he was clearly proud of how his Norse imposed their will on the Bearcats.
NKU won in front of a record crowd of 8,305 fans, which was 100 tickets short of an official sellout.
“It means everything,” said NKU junior guard Marques Warrick. “We knew coming in we can compete and win with them. They’ve had a good program for a long time now, but we just went out there and completed, and did what we were supposed to do. It’s a lot different when you have eight thousand people there for the first time in my college career.
The game was part of an agreement made when UC utilized NKU's Truist Arena during its season-long Fifth Third Arena renovation in 2017-18. UC will play at Truist Arena again during the 2024-25 season after the Norse play at Fifth Third Arena next season.
“Unbelievable college basketball atmosphere,” said NKU head coach Darrin Horn during the postgame press conference. “I’ve been at this a long time and been fortunate to be at some high-level games, Final Fours included. That was what a big-time college basketball atmosphere looks like. That’s what this team is capable of. I’m so grateful to the administration to make a night like tonight happen.
The partisan crowd was seemingly almost all in Norse gear, with mostly gold apparel representing the Norse on hand and isolated fans in UC red gear in the middle of them.
“I can’t say enough about the fans,” Horn said. “There was a lot of talk about will it be pro-Norse tonight or red and black? It wasn’t even close. So thank you to our fans for that. They were into the game in a major way.”
Some technical glitches marred the first half, but they did not spoil the occasion for the Norse.
NKU had brief electrical issues with its main scoreboard and the microphone used by national anthem singer Alyssa Wray, a former American Idol contestant and NKU student. But the big problem was an internet server outage that prevented the game from streaming online via ESPN+.
The broadcast began working late in the first half, roughly when the Bearcats began to surge and take the lead at the break, 40-36. But everything went well for NKU after halftime.
NKU started out hot, shooting 11-of-16 from the floor and 4-of-5 from 3-point range. Marques Warrick had 12 points in the early going, and Sam Vinson nine.
NKU led by eight, 30-22, at the eight-minute mark of the first half. Coming out of the media timeout, Victor Lakhin’s 6-foot-11-inch reach got the Bearcats back in the game.
Lakhin, UC’s starting center, scored three baskets in a row at the rim, then senior guard Jeremiah Davenport tied the game with an open driving layup, and the teams were tied 30-30 at the 6:00 mark.
Two layups by 6-foot-8-inch Kalu Ezikpe off the bench, and a 3-pointer by Davenport gave UC its biggest lead of the half, five, at 39-34 on its way to a 40-36 halftime lead.
NKU regrouped in the locker room and dominated the second half. The Norse scored the first eight points of the half. A steal by Vinson resulted in an outlet pass to the frontcourt for Brandon, who sent home a dunk to put NKU up 44-40 with 16:27 to play.
Leading 46-42, NKU senior point guard Xavier Rhodes scored a layup for his only points of the game, then the Norse got a 3-pointer by senior Trevon Faulkner for his first points of the game, and NKU led by nine at 51-42.
UC’s David DeJulius hit a three right away to make it 51-45, then the NKU defense took over.
UC shot only 4-of-29 from the field in the second half, 2-of-11 from 3-point range and only 2-of-18 from inside the arc.
No Bearcat scored in double figures as the Norse clamped down on their veteran guards. David DeJulius shot 4-of-13, Davenport 2-of-9 and Landers Nolley 3-of-11.
“Defensively, these guys were unbelievable,” Horn said. “The biggest thing was they just competed at an unbelievable level. We were just really good fundamentally in the second half. We guarded the ball, we kept it in front of us, and that allowed us to get home on their shooters. They have three dynamic scorers who can really get it going. They have guys who can create tough shots and make them. We wanted to do a good job of staying with those guys, and to do that you have to stay with those guys and not help as much.”
Brandon, who gave up length to several UC frontcourt players, including the 6-foot-11-inch Viktor Lakhin, posted 16 rebounds to go with his 10 points. NKU outrebounded a bigger UC team by three, 35-32.
Sophomore guard Sam Vinson, the Highlands High School grad, had 15 points, six rebounds, three assists, four steals and two blocks. Vinson had been battling injury and had not had live reps in practice for more than a week. Vinson was cleared to play at 1 p.m. this afternoon, and Horn had no doubt he would.
NKU’s leading scorer for the night was Warrick, who had 22 points, two assists and three blocks.
“We practiced well all week and we have to keep doing that,” Warrick said. “I go into every game with the same mindset. I know my team needs me to score. I was able to make some shots and we got the win.”
The Norse will celebrate and then head to Florida next week for a tournament at Florida Gulf Coast. NKU will on Monday play the host team, FGCU, a former league foe in the Atlantic Sun Conference whom hoops fans may remember going to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
They hope this win is a springboard.
“You’re talking about historically a top 20 team in college basketball,” Horn said. “It’s a program across the river that has done a lot of good things, and you don’t have many games like that in our arena. We’re glad we could give that pride to our fans and the people who have gone to the school. To me, the exciting thing is this is a glimpse of what it could become if we continue to grow and people continue to come out like they did tonight.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Northern Kentucky Norse celebrate win over Cincinnati Bearcats