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Northern Kentucky eyes to make most of NCAA Tournament after previous opportunities evaporated

The Norse, who won its fourth Horizon League title this year, was set to go dancing in 2020 and coughed up a 16-point lead in the championship last season

NCAA Basketball: Horizon Conference Tournament Championship
The Norse head into the NCAA Tournament with a 22-12 record.
Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

When Northern Kentucky claimed the Horizon League title Tuesday night, there was an extra sense of enjoyment for the program.

The last time the Norse cut down the nets was March 10, 2020. Less than 72 hours later the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then last season, NKU held a 16-point lead over Wright State with less than 12 minutes to play in the championship game only to fall by one point.

“For our players, absolutely it makes this one really sweet,” head coach Darrin Horn said. “It kind of feels like you lost out on two [trips to the NCAA Tournament] – one that was definitely earned.”

This year’s team enters the Big Dance with a 22-12 record and winners of its last five games. It is the sixth 20-win season in last seven years. The lone outlier was 2021, when NKU played just 25 games total and went 14-11. It has been Division I program for just 11 seasons.

The upcoming NCAA Tournament will be the Norse’s third time competing in the NCAA Tournament.

Northern Kentucky defeated Cleveland State 63-61 in the championship game. It was their fourth title game appearance in the last five years.

Marques Warrick was named the tournament’s MVP after leading the team in scoring in each of its three games in the tournament. He had 18 points, six rebounds and three steals in the title game. Sam Vinson followed close behind with 16 points and five boards.

In the semifinals, the Norse beat regular-season champion Youngstown State 75-63. Warrick tallied 22 points. Chris Brandon notched eight points and 17 rebounds. Sam Vinson amassed 17 points and six rebounds.

In the quarterfinals, NKU earned a wire-to-wire 81-74 victory over Oakland. Five players scored in double figures. Warrick netted five of his seven attempts from 3-point land for 22 points. Brandon posted 13 points and 13 boards. Vinson added 12 points and three steals.

“The biggest thing about playing well in March is can you just stay in the moment,” Horn said. “That’s the whole cliché of one game at a time but then even one four-minute segment at a time. One possession at a time. Can you get to the next play, regardless of what happened on the last one and be able to stay focused and do the things you have to do to try to be your best?”

It has been a historic season for a pair of NKU players individually. Warrick has scored 650 points this season, just 14 shy of the program record for most points in a season. Brandon has set the single-season rebounding mark with 333 boards.