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NKU can’t pull off upset against top-seed Houston but Norse proved they belong on NCAA’s big stage

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

The moment was definitely not too big for Northern Kentucky’s Norse.

But the top-seeded Houston Cougars might have been . . . just a bit.

Which is why history did not happen here in front of a crowd of 15,154 at Birmingham’s Legacy Arena Thursday night in an NCAA Tournament first-round game although there were plenty of “NKU, NKU” cheers the longer the underdog Norse hung in there led by a large group of Norse fans.

Sam Vinson was as good as any player on the floor in the NKU-Houston game Thursday night.

“Big history,” as CBS’ Jim Nantz called a possible NKU upset since it would have been only the second time in 137 of these all-time No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchups that it happened.

But it didn’t.

“We thought that this was a game, especially as the game went on, that we could win, and would win.,” NKU Coach Darrin Horn said of his gameplan against the long and physical Cougars who oftentimes pound teams into submission. “We just didn’t make enough shots.”

“Give credit to Houston,” Horn said. “There’s a reason they are the No. 1 team in the country. Really physical and aggressive. Played without their best player in the second half tonight.”

But there was more, much more from Horn. “I’m unbelievably proud of our team, the fight that we showed. In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we outplayed Houston tonight. We just didn’t make enough shots.

“Had nine steals against the No. 1 team in the country. We were plus 10 in turnover margin, had 18 offensive rebounds. Just a lot of things we can point to. We played really, really well. Put ourselves in position to have a chance to win the game, just did not make enough shots.”

In a game that had been tied eight times, with the last at 36-36 with 15:44 left, the 32-3 Cougars finished NKU off with too much firepower inside – and bench depth — for a Norse team whose outside shooting almost completely deserted it as the game moved on.

And that’s what it would have taken, for NKU to come in and knock down more than five of its 33 three-point attempts. Did fatigue play a factor as four NKU starters played more than 37 minutes while no Houston player played that many minutes? Maybe.

Despite its shooting woes, NKU closed to within five, 55-50, with 3:36 left on a pair of Marques Warrick free throws. But an 8-2 finish gave the Cougars the final 63-52 margin, the longest lead of the night.

Not that NKU didn’t do lots of good things. The matchup zone, a defense unlike any Houston had seen all season, turned the Cougars over 17 times while NKU turned it over just seven. And limited a Houston team averaging 75 points a game to 12 below that.

But NKU did rebound the ball. The smaller Norse, led by sophomore Sam Vinson’s nose for the ball and Houston native Chris Brandon’s athleticism and effort, outrebounded Houston on the offensive glass – 18 to 11. NKU was just the third team to do that to Houston this year although the Cougars finished with an overall 42-33 rebounding edge.

But with those extra possessions, a team has to be able to knock shots down. NKU couldn’t, hitting just 19 of 69 shots – an unimaginably low 27.5 percent. From three, it was worse – just 15.2 percent.

Tough shooting night for NKU’s Marques Warrick

“Yeah, it was frustrating a little bit,” Vinson said. “But we don’t think about that during the game. Our players and coaches kept saying, ‘Keep shooting, keep shooting the ball.’ But we came into the mindset to swing it, let the ball loose and shoot it if you got a shot. We were doing that all night, just to see a few rim and out or be close to going in, it hurts. But we just kept on shooting.”

Houston took just 51 shots but hit 25 – 49.0 percent. From three-point range, they were just four of 16, but that 25.0 percent was still nearly 10 percentage points better than NKU’s.

NKU’s pair of veteran perimeter shooters, Warrick and Trevon Faulkner, combined for just five of 27 – two for 14 from three – as Warrick scored just nine points, 10 under his average.

“They are a great defensive team, and they didn’t make it easy,” Horn said. “At the same time, I felt like we got a lot of good clean open looks that we usually make at a high rate that we didn’t.”

NKU’s Brandon pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds. “Chris Brandon was as good as anybody on the floor tonight, with how hard he played,” Horn said.

“We had them on the ropes a few times,” Brandon said. “Like Sam said, we weren’t making enough of the shots we needed in the stretch.”

Vinson’s eight rebounds – five offensive — were more than any Cougar except for 6-foot-7, 230-pound J’Wan Roberts, who had a double-double with 11 points, 12 rebounds.

“I feel like they wanted it more,” Roberts said in praising NKU, “attacking the glass way harder than we were.”

Leading Houston, as All-American guard Marcus Sasser was limited to 13:53 minutes and five points with a re-aggravated groin injury, were a pair of talented freshmen. Inside, there was 6-8, 240-pound Jarace Walker, who had a game-high 16 points while outside, Emanuel Sharp came in off the bench to hit back-to-back threes to take Houston’s lead from 41-38 to 47-38 at the 10:30 mark.

“Two huge plays,” Horn called them, “really big plays.”

Vinson clearly came of age in this game, looking for all the world like the Kentucky Player of the Year he was for state champion Highlands two years ago, scoring a team-high 15 points to go along with three steals and a blocked shot.

Houston advances to a Saturday matchup against a ninth-seeded Auburn team, playing almost at home, that beat Iowa.

Houston native Chris Brandon had a game-high 14 rebounds against the Cougars.

But asked about the upcoming Auburn game, Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson said: “Let’s stop right there and let’s give Northern Kentucky some credit. We keep talking about us and Auburn and all this stuff. I don’t coach Northern Kentucky, but I was proud of their team tonight.

“They fought. They are well-coached. Their kids were tough, they are smart, they are old. They got a bunch of grad kids, seniors, older guys. I was impressed. And they play a style that forces you to have to play subjectively, you know. It’s concepts. You know, and concepts equals basketball IQ. You got to be really smart to play against that stuff.”

But Sampson wasn’t finished talking about NKU: “That team had 21 points on second chance shots. Credit to them, man. You know, they were tougher than we were tonight, and that’s not easy for me to say. Disappointed in that. But hats off to Coach Horn and Northern Kentucky. I was proud of his team for him. And I told him that in the handshake lines. I’m proud of you guys. Happy for you. They fought. They went down swinging.”

They did indeed.

HOUSTON 30-33-63
NORTHERN KENTUCKY (22-13): Vinson 15, Robinson 11, Brandon 6, Warrick 9, Rhodes 8, Faulkner 3, Pivorius 0, Sumler 0, TOTAL: 52.
HOUSTON (32-3): Walker 16, Roberts 11, Sharp 10, Shead 13, Sasser 5, Mark 4, Chaney 2, Arcenaux 2, TOTAL: 63.

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