Introducing Cinderella: Northern Kentucky back in the Dance after winning Horizon League tourney

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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Top-seed Wright State got the first bucket of the game…and never led again.

No. 2 Northern Kentucky got out in front early and never looked back, claiming its second Horizon League tournament title in three years with a 77-66 victory Tuesday over the Raiders.

The Norse had a dominant first half before Wright State battled back right before halftime and had the deficit cut to nine in the opening minutes of the second half, but then Northern Kentucky built its lead back to 19 points before the midway point of the second half and wasn’t threatened the rest of the way.

Northern Kentucky made 12 of 21 from 3 and shot 60.3 percent overall from the floor. Five Norse players scored in double figures, led by Jalen Tate’s 17 points. Dantez Walton had a double-double of 15 points and 14 rebounds. Wright State as done in not only by its porous defense but by an offense that couldn’t find its footing. The Raiders shot 7 of 24 (29.2 percent) from 3-point range.

CONFERENCE: Horizon

COACH: John Brannen

RECORD: 26-8, 13-5 Horizon

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 105
  • NET: 117

PROJECTED SEED: Given the lack of a signature win or two along with a number of tough Ls, the Norse are likely headed for a 15 seed. The relative strength of the Horizon should help Northern Kentucky avoid the dreaded 16-line and perhaps Dayton, but they’re going to be heavy underdogs in their return to the NCAA tournament since going one-and-done in 2017.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Drew McDonald was named the Horizon League player of the year after averaging team-bests in scoring (19.3) and rebounds (9.5) while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 41.1 percent from 3-point range as a 6-foot-8 senior. Six-foot-6 sophomore Jalen Tate is one of the country’s top assist men at 4.1 per game at a rate of 31.6 percent while also averaging 13.9 points per game. Tyler Sharpe (14.2) and Dantez Walton (10.9) also average double-digit scoring.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: Their defeat of Wright State (118 KenPom) was their second of the season with both those wins being the best on the Norse’s resume, though non-conference wins against Miami (OH) and Northern Illinois will help their cause some. Losses to Eastern Kentucky (237) and Cleveland State (281), the latter being at home, won’t, though.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: McDonald was just a fraction shy of averaging 20-10, which is impressive enough, but it’s the Norse’s ability to share the ball that’s made them successful and their offense notable. Northern Kentucky assists on 61.6 percent of its baskets, which ranks as the ninth-highest percentage in the nation.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: Those of you who follow hoops closely in the Bluegrass State might remember the Norse’s Tyler Sharpe as a former Louisville player. The Mount Washington, Ky. native and Kentucky Mr. Basketball finalist walked-on with the Cardinals as a freshman in 2016-17 before joining the Norse.

FINAL THOUGHT: McDonald might be a tough cover for Horizon defenses, but it’ll be tougher for him to be a matchup problem against whatever Power 5 powerhouse the Norse are likely to draw in the first round. Northern Kentucky also surrenders a lot of 3-point attempts, which could spell trouble if they draw a skilled team. There’s enough experienced talent here that high seeds should be wary, but this team isn’t going to be a popular upset pick.