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Facing Cleveland State in a game NKU couldn’t afford to lose, Norse gifted once again by Marques Warrick

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

NKU’s Norsemen have no choice right now” they’re in “final four” mode.

No, not that Final Four. But one of their own as the Norse started their final four-game regular season run Thursday night at Truist Arena.

A “final four” run to get themselves into the Horizon League’s final four top regular season finishers. And thus have a leg up – in this case – an opening-round home playoff game to move on to the four-team league semifinals in Indianapolis, March 11-12, with the winner heading off to the NCAA Tournament, a place that’s been home to a tourney-winning NKU three of the last seven seasons as well as one year earning the Norse an NIT bid.

Norse win, Norse win. Let the ceelbration begin — NKu’s LJ Wells, Randall Petus II, Marques Warrick and Trey Robinson loving in. (Photo by Dale Dawn/NKyTribune)

But with at least four teams fighting for that fourth and final “final four” spot in a league race that’s thisclose, you just cannot afford to lose a game you have a chance to win – a home game against a team you’re tied with that took an overtime to beat you by three – 88-85 – six weeks ago on the road.

A team like Cleveland State, tied with NKU going into this game for the Horizon’s fifth spot with a 9-7 league record.

Perfect. All you have to do is win out. Win out and you’re probably in.

Just don’t call it a “must win” game, NKU Coach Darrin Horn says. He doesn’t believe in them.

NKU Coach Darrin Horn presents Marques Warrick the record-breaking game ball as Warrick’s mother looks on. (Photo by Dale Dawn/NKyTribune)

Especially this year when so many Horizon teams are so evenly matched, none more so than the historically related Vikings from Northern Ohio and Norsemen from Northern Kentucky.

So no surprise it would come down to a final play after a timeout with NKU leading by two – 75-73 – and just 4.0 seconds left. As everyone in the crowd of 2,856 knew, Cleveland went to the player Horn thinks has “the most talent” in the league – 6-foot-8 Tristan Enaruna, a well-traveled senior from The Netherlands by way of big-time programs Utah and Iowa State – with 25 points already.

NKU’s Trey Robinson had been the primary defender on Enaruna the second half, playing on an injured ankle, but the first switch had another senior – Marques Warrick — jumping over to pick him up before Robinson switched back.

Can’t foul, NKU knew. But can’t give him anything easy as the ball went up from just inside the lane on the left side, tantalizingly crawled across the rim – and fell off – as the red light came on behind the backboard.

An NKU team that had trailed 27-14 just over 12 minutes into the game had managed to survive somehow. “Maturity,” Horn said of the 19-6 run that got NKU back to a 33-33 halftime tie, and not a hint of “panic.”

NKU senior Trey Robinson with a power dunk on his way to a double-double night. (Photo by Dale Dawn/NKyTribune)

If this wasn’t a “must-win” game for NKU, it was a game the Norse couldn’t afford to lose. Although even before the tipoff, Warrick, NKU’s all-time leading scorer, had already put his name up in lights but not necessarily for the night against Detroit Mercy when he set a new NKU scoring record with his 2,607th point.

Or even when NKU honored him formally before Thursday’s game. Nope, it was what Warrick did as he was being honored. He presented the NKU Scholarship Fund with a check for $2,607 to maybe someday help a young man like himself. But he didn’t stop there. He also donated to the Queen City Book Bank’s literacy project.

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Horn said of this NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) era when student-athletes legally can cash in on their athletic ability when the man they call “Ques” turned that process around. “He wanted to do it for NKU,” Horn said. “It speaks volumes for this place.”

And says more about Warrick. “Any time I can give, I do so willingly,” the Lexington native said. “I’ve been here four years. This is like my second home.”

But Warrick’s gift-giving for NKU didn’t end there. Against a physical, athletic and aggressive defense for Cleveland State (16-12, 9-8 Horizon) that was keying on him, all “Ques did was score 27 points – two more than Enaruna in this battle of player-of-the-year candidates in the Horizon – which was also the final winning margin in this game.

“I wanted to come out aggressive and be who I am,” said Warrick, who also had a career-high seven rebounds. Hitting all 12 of his free throws pretty much tells you who he is and why he holds the scoring record. In fact, in this game, an NKU team (15-13, 10-7 Horizon) that drove the ball to the basket after making just one of its first 10 shots, hit 22 of its first 23 free throws in this game on the way to a season-high 88.0 percent on 22 of 25.

Cleveland Stat’s Tristan Enaruna: a team high 25 points, but could get the last shot to go down. (Photo by Dale Dawn/NKyTribune)

But their final two attempts, both by Robinson, that could have put NKU up by four, missed with 50.8 seconds left. NKU scrapped for a loose ball, however, and got possession after a tie-up. But at the end of the shot clock, Warrick was forced to take a too-long, under-pressure three-pointer that missed. Cleveland State ball with a chance to tie or win the game.

And Robinson, on a double-double night (12 points, 10 rebounds) was thinking defense, not about those two missed free throws. “Absolutely not,” the senior said, “you’ve got to forget about it.”

Up front with the 6-6 Robinson was 6-8 junior LJ Wells, who had 17 points, that left the Norse with a smallish front line after 6-9 center Keeyan Itejere left the game with a sprained ankle with the severity yet to be determined. His availability could be a key since backup center, 6-8 Cade Meyer, has left the team.

Now Warrick and Robinson can look ahead to Sunday’s Senior Day against IUPUI at 2 p.m., which will also be Fan Appreciation Day. And maybe the final home game for Warrick and Robinson.

“I hope it’s not the last (home) game,” Warrick said.

If NKU wins enough in the final three games, including the crucial season-ending one at Wright State, a half-game ahead of NKU after beating the Norse in Highland Heights, and NKU gets that all-important big home first-round playoff game, Horn said that may not be as big an edge for NKU as you’d think.

Not in a Horizon League where anybody can beat anybody. And anywhere. That’s something NKU’s two wins over second-place Green Bay (12-4) prove.

“If we’re at home (in the top four in the playoffs), we’re going to play a really good team that’s probably already beaten us,” Horn said. No guarantees, not this year.

CLEVELAND STATE (16-12, 9-8 Horizon): Woodrich 0-6 0-5 0-0 0, Arnett 4-4 0-0 1-1 9, Enaruna 10-20 2-3 3-4 25, Williams 5-7 0-0 4-6 14, Lowder 1-10 0-4 0-0 2, Robinson 2-4 0-1 0-0 4, Smith 4-9 0-3 0-0 8, Rice 5-6 1-1 0-0 11, Moss 0-0 0-0 0-0 0; TOTALS: 31-66 3-17 8-11 73.
NORTHERN KENTUCKY (15-13, 10-7 Horizon): Wells 6-10 0-0 5-5 17, Itejere 1-2 0-0 2-2 4, Robinson 4-10 1-10 3-6 12, Warrick 7-16 1-6 12-12 27, Bradley 2-7 1-5 0-0 5, Pettus 2-4 1-2 0-0 5, Israel 2-4 1-2 0-0 5, Tchilombo 0-0 0-0 0-0 0; TOTALS: 24-53 5-18 22-25 75.

Contact Dan Weber at dweber3440@aol.com. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @dweber3440.

NKU’s Marques Warrick presents a check for $2067 — equalling his career point total needed to break the record — before the game Thursday. (Photo provided)

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