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Northern Kentucky Norse win chaotic Horizon League Tournament, return to March Madness

The battle of the Vikings came out with the — err — ‘Vikings’ on top.

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

In a year where the Horizon League featured more twists and turns than many roller coasters, the tournament delivered on its promise of chaos. When the final buzzer on an epic conference season sounded, the Northern Kentucky Norse celebrated their fourth conference tournament crown since 2017, defeating Cleveland State 63-61.

The drama of March started in February for the Horizon League tournament, with Michael Green’s game-winning 3 lifted Robert Morris past IUPUI in the first round.

Two nights later, the Horizon League was in the center of the national spotlight, as Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis was approaching Pete Maravich’s vaunted Division I career points record. The Titans defeated Fort Wayne in the opening round, with Davis scoring 38 points, earning a trip to top-seeded Youngstown State for a chance at the record.

Davis needed 26 points to break the record, and No. 1 seed Youngstown State wasn’t about to let him take it without resistance. In a back-and-forth game, the Penguins took the win, and prevented Davis from breaking, or even tying, the record, as his last-gasp 3-pointer to tie Maravich clanked off the back rim. (Davis may get the chance at the CBI, supposedly.)

From that game, Youngstown State wasn’t able to keep the momentum going. When the tournament shifted to neutral sites in Indianapolis for the semifinals, we got the matchup that we wanted. Northern Kentucky, the Horizon’s best defense, against the potent Penguin offense.

The turnover margin was the difference, as Northern Kentucky only turned the ball over three times all game, and took a 22-point lead early in the second half. A Youngstown run cut the lead briefly to just four, but the Norse didn’t ever give up the lead in the second half, and finished off a 75-63 victory.

In the final, the only team standing between the Norse and another bid in the NCAA Tournament was Cleveland State, looking for their second tournament bid in three seasons. The Norse and Vikings (Insert Spider-Men pointing dot meme) played two excellent regular season games, splitting the honors in two one-point games.

They played another excellent game, going back and forth throughout the entire first half, NKU taking a 33-30 lead into halftime. In the second half, the Norse defense flexed its muscles, holding Cleveland State to just five points over a near ten-minute stretch, and eventually extended their lead to as much as seven.

Cleveland State did hit a three-pointer to cut the Norse lead to two, but with under a second left, the celebration had already begun, and Northern Kentucky finished off a 63-61 win in the Horizon League Championship.

Chris Brandon’s chase-down block symbolized his tournament, with incredible effort on both ends, and being one of the best defenders in the league.

Brandon, the Horizon League’s leader in rebounding percentage, grabbed 13 boards per game across the three-game tournament. Marques Warrick led the Norse in scoring in all three games, averaging 20.7 PPG across the tournament.

For Darrin Horn, who led the Norse to the auto-bid in his first season at the helm, only for it to be spoiled by COVID, it’s a massive moment. The former South Carolina and Western Kentucky head man will coach an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since the 2008 Sweet 16.

The Bracketmatrix projects that the Norse will get a 16 seed, but it’s highly unlikely that they end up in Dayton.