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

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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.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.