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Horizon League Championship Preview: Northern Kentucky meets Milwaukee

Northern Kentucky could make history, but Milwaukee aims to spoil the party.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Kentucky at West Virginia
Northern Kentucky head coach John Brannen has his squad one win away from a historic NCAA Tournament berth.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The story of the Horizon League Tournament so far has been the Milwaukee Panthers. As the 10 seed, they weren’t expected to win any games, let alone three to make it to the championship game.

Yet, here we sit on Tuesday, the day of the championship game, and Milwaukee is still alive. Yes, the team that entered tournament play on a nine-game losing streak has ripped off three consecutive wins in Detroit, including taking down 2 seed Valparaiso.

The Panthers have employed a variety of methods in those three victories. In their opener against Detroit Mercy, Milwaukee caught fire from the field and received an outstanding performance off the bench from Jeremiah Bell, who put up 31 points. In their quarterfinal win over Valparaiso, the Panthers shot poorly, but locked down on the defensive end. Valparaiso never got into an offensive rhythm against the Milwaukee defense, and the Panthers survived, 43-41. Then in Monday’s semifinal win over UIC, Milwaukee won the battle in the post. Brett Prahl and Bryce Nze prevented the Flames from establishing themselves down low in a 74-68 Milwaukee win.

4 seed Northern Kentucky will present a new test for Milwaukee in Tuesday night’s championship game.

“We’ve got to get prepared at a high level because we know they execute,” Panthers coach LaVall Jordan said. “Then they’ve got a couple guys who are hard to match-up with.”

Chief among those matchup nightmares is Drew McDonald. The sophomore big man has outstanding range, which was on full display in the Norse’s semifinal win over Youngstown State. McDonald tallied 26 points in the win, which included four three-pointers. He becomes especially deadly when knocking down threes early in games, because he is skilled enough to put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim when a defender gets too aggressive in trying to stop his perimeter game. It becomes difficult for traditional post players to follow McDonald around and guard him, so it will be interesting to see how Milwaukee adjusts.

While Milwaukee is playing to keep a magical run going, Northern Kentucky also has something special to play for. The Norse are eligible for the NCAA Tournament for the first time this season, as they have now completed their transition to Division I. Securing an NCAA Tournament berth in their first year of eligibility would be an incredible success for a program with great potential (ed note: u mad, Northwestern?).

A championship would also be extra special for McDonald, who grew up not far from Northern Kentucky’s campus. He discussed wanting to “lay the foundation” at Northern Kentucky as it became a Division I school.

“Growing up, it has always been my dream to go to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. He will have a chance to lead his hometown team to that level on Tuesday night.

In order for Milwaukee to come away with yet another upset on Tuesday night, it will need to do two things, and one is get to the basket. The Panthers have some capable shooters, particularly Brock Stull who went a perfect 3-3 from three-point range in their semifinal win. But they saw great success getting into the paint against UIC. Getting to the rim also forces McDonald to make a play down low on defense, increasing the likelihood of getting him into foul trouble.

Second, they have to find a way to guard McDonald. Youngstown State double-teamed McDonald when the ball came to him with mixed results. Milwaukee will likely employ a similar strategy. But what is really dangerous is when McDonald gets out on the perimeter in a one-on-one situation. Prahl and Nze will likely be tasked with chasing McDonald around and will need to stay out of foul trouble while doing so.

For Northern Kentucky, the key may not be McDonald, but LaVone Holland II. Holland runs point guard for the Norse and will likely be the second scoring option should Milwaukee succeed in shutting McDonald down. He put up 20 points against Youngstown State and was perfect from three-point range in the game. He is excellent at attacking the basket as well, and can draw the defense in to kick out to open shooters.

As for my prediction, I think Milwaukee’s run will come to an end tonight and Northern Kentucky will advance as the Horizon League representative to the NCAA Tournament. The Norse have a tremendous amount of offensive firepower and seem to be hitting their stride at the right time.

Then again, we’ve all been picking against Milwaukee this whole tournament. Time and again they’ve proven us wrong. The Panthers and Norse actually split their season series with one another and both games were relatively close. Milwaukee certainly won’t go down without a fight. The game tips off at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.