Northern Kentucky held off Milwaukee 59-53 to win the Horizon League Tournament championship in Detroit and earn an NCAA Tournament bid in its first year of eligibility since moving up to Division I.
The fourth-seeded Norse are in their fifth season of Division I basketball, but didn’t have a shot to earn a spot in college basketball’s showcase until this year.
Northern Kentucky (24-10), with a roster loaded with homegrown Kentucky talent, was led by former Ballard star Lavone Holland II’s 20 points. The junior, who was named the tournament’s MVP, also had six rebounds, four assists, two steals and one blocked shot.
“It has always been a dream of mine to be in one of those piles,” Holland said after ending up at the bottom of the oncourt celebration. “And, it’s a dream come true for that to happen after winning a game that puts us in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Norse were in control for much of the game, which had only one tie and one lead change, but they couldn’t pull away from the pesky Panthers.
“I knew in January we were good enough to win the conference tournament … I didn’t tell them until February,” NKU Coach John Brannen told Cincinnati’s Fox 19.
Drew McDonald, a sophomore out of Newport Central Catholic, contributed a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Freshman Carson Williams, the reigning Mr. Basketball out of Owen County, added seven points, five rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block.
“It was my dream as a kid … playing in the NCAA Tournament,” McDonald told Fox 19. “When I committed, I went to NKU and I figured why not take my hometown to an NCAA Tournament. I take a lot of pride in that, being from northern Kentucky.”
Cole Murray scored eight points with four rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
NKU also got two points, two rebounds and an assist from Mason Faulkner, a freshman out of Caverna.
Brannen is a Newport Central Catholic graduate who played in college at Morehead State and Marshall.
Tenth-seeded Milwaukee (11-24) was a win away from having the most losses in NCAA Tournament history, which has had three 20-loss teams in its history: Cal Poly (2014), Liberty (2013) and Coppin State (2008).
“I think it was an inspiration,” Panthers Coach LaVall Jordan said. “I know for people in the Milwaukee community, our university and our city, it inspired a lot of belief when you are down and nobody thinks you can.”
Jeremiah Bell, a sophomore from Boyle County, scored two points for Milwaukee.
The Norse and the Panthers had split their two meetings during the regular season. Milwaukee won at home 68-58 on Jan. 12, and NKU held serve with a 69-63 victory in Highland Heights on Feb. 11.