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Horizon League Championship: The Norse go Dancing

Northern Kentucky held off Milwaukee to clinch their first ever NCAA Tournament berth.

NCAA Basketball: Horizon League Conference Tournament-Milwaukee vs Northern Kentucky Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t pretty, but the Northern Kentucky Norse are Horizon League champions following a 59-53 victory over Milwaukee in Detroit.

Northern Kentucky came out firing to open the game as the Norse jumped out to a 13-4 lead. Drew McDonald was the catalyst of the early run, just as he was in Northern Kentucky’s semifinal win, with seven of those 13 early points.

However, the Norse failed to put away Milwaukee after the hot start. The Panthers were able to close the gap and cut the deficit to just three heading into halftime after a Brett Prahl putback beat the halftime horn. Prahl and Brock Stull combined to score 20 of Milwaukee’s 28 first half points to keep the Panthers in the game.

Similar to the rest of the tournament, the second half was close throughout. Northern Kentucky could never quite put away Milwaukee, but the Panthers missed plenty of golden opportunities as well and could never get the game tied let alone take a lead.

LaVone Holland came through in the clutch time and time again for the Norse. He finished with 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and was instrumental in Northern Kentucky holding onto its lead throughout the second half. Holland was rewarded with the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award for his efforts.

Milwaukee was able to cut their deficit to three with 1:11 to play on a Cody Wichmann three-pointer. However, they were unable to get any closer. McDonald and Stull traded baskets, but Milwaukee had to foul to stay in the game.

Holland was only able to convert the front end of a one and one to keep Milwaukee’s hopes alive, but the Panthers weren’t able to hit the big shot to keep them in the game. Eventually, Cole Murray was able to ice the game for Northern Kentucky at the free throw line.

The 2016-17 season was Northern Kentucky’s first as a program eligible for postseason play. The Norse completed their full transition to Division-I and made it count as they head to the NCAA Tournament.

As the 4-seed in the conference tournament, Northern Kentucky may face a tough road in the NCAA Tournament. Bracket Matrix has the Norse in the 15-seed range, but they could be a dangerous 15-seed. That will largely depend on McDonald, who finished Tuesday’s championship game with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and Holland staying hot.

Milwaukee’s season, in all likelihood, comes to a close following the loss. Despite their deep run in the Horizon League Tournament, their 11-24 record overall likely does not warrant a berth in a postseason tournament. Looking ahead to next season, however, their tournament run could lead to success as the Panthers return many key contributors, including Stull and Prahl who made the All-Tournament Team.