Before they left the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court for good following Friday night’s 79-70 loss to heavily favored Kentucky, a few of Northern Kentucky’s players made a pit stop.
“I went over and just wanted to thank our fans,” said sophomore Drew McDonald, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. “And the weird thing was, when I got over there … they were thanking me. I saw people saying, ‘Thank you.’ It just hit me, I looked up and I saw my dad specifically, and he gave me a thumbs up, and that’s what put a tear in my eye really, just to realize the impact we’ve put on our community and the university as a whole.”
McDonald started to choke up as he finished.
“It just — it struck me. And I just can’t thank Norse Nation enough.”
The day before the Norse made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament — in their first season of eligibility, no less — NKU’s players talked about how the number of students wearing UK shirts on their campus, which is just 85 miles north of Lexington, dwindled as the season wore on.
The NKU community started to believe in this upstart program, and those believers were rewarded with a gritty effort against the mighty Wildcats. The ones who made the trip to Indianapolis cheered until the end.
There was plenty for “Norse Nation” to be pleased with.
Junior point guard Lavone Holland II — the former Ballard High School star — was all over the court, diving for loose balls, pressuring the UK guards and doing his part on the offensive end to the tune of a game-high 22 points.
“He was a very good player,” said De’Aaron Fox, his UK counterpart. “He was great off the ball screen. He was able to rebound for them. He didn’t turn the ball over much. We tried to pressure him. He handled the pressure pretty well today.
“He scored the ball, and that’s what we knew he was going to do.”
Carson Williams — Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball out of Owen County last season — is listed at 6-5, but the freshman went right at the Wildcats’ larger post players, never backing down and finishing with 21 points and nine rebounds.
“That’s just who he is,” NKU Coach John Brannen said. “Carson moved the needle, toughness wise, as much as anybody else in the program.”
McDonald — a former standout at Newport Central Catholic — finished with 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals. Throw in a late three-pointer by freshman Mason Faulkner — a Caverna High School grad — that cut UK’s lead to 74-65 in the final minute, and Kentucky natives combined to score 60 of NKU’s 70 points.
The Norse kept it close early on and were within 23-21 of the No. 2-seeded Wildcats when senior guard Cole Murray put up a good-looking three-point attempt that would’ve given NKU the lead. That shot rattled out, Fox scored six straight points, and his spurt started a 13-0 run that the Wildcats used to go up 36-21.
Still, the Norse never quit.
As UK sputtered and the Wildcats’ fans in attendance stayed largely silent, NKU kept the score just close enough for discomfort.
A 17-7 Norse run late in the game pulled them with 70-62. McDonald’s three-pointer a little while later made it 75-68. But there were only 30 seconds left, and the clock finally ran out on NKU and its magical season, which included a 12-6 record in the Horizon League and a conference tournament championship to earn a shot at the Cats.
“Kentucky is elite,” Brannen said with Holland, Williams and McDonald sitting next to him at the postgame podium. “We knew we’d take some hits and knew they’d go on the runs. When you play a top team like Kentucky, you can’t let them have (big) runs.
“Our guys showed tremendous character and toughness to come back from that. That (lead) could have ballooned to 20, 25, 28. It didn’t. That speaks to the guys to my right.”