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NKU faces major challenge Friday night with road game at surging Illinois-Chicago

By Don Owen
NKyTribune reporter

Imagine having the dreaded “target” symbolically etched on the back of your uniform for an entire basketball season. Not just for a game or two, but each time you take the court against league opponents.

Welcome to the world of Northern Kentucky University, the defending Horizon League Tournament champion.

Getting every opponent’s “A” game can be physically demanding and emotionally draining. Watching teams drastically alter their style of play — as Youngstown State did this past Monday night, going from fast-paced offense to a burn-the-shot-clock approach — is also something NKU has encountered this season.

Drew McDonald enters Friday with 1,365 career points, which ranks 13th in Norse history. McDonald needs just three points to pass Chris Wall (1,367 points) for 12th place on the NKU all-time scoring list. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Despite the challenge of being the target, NKU enters the final weekend of the regular season with a 20-8 overall record. The Norse are also tied with Wright State for first place in the Horizon League standings with a 13-3 record.

But teams are definitely pulling out every trick against the Norse, the latest example being Youngstown State’s slow-down tactic Monday night.

“Youngstown controlled tempo, and that seems to be every team’s M.O. right now against us,” NKU head coach John Brannen said, noting a trend among Norse opponents in recent games. “We need to push the tempo more defensively by creating more turnovers. We need to push the tempo more in terms of our full-court pressure as well as executing better offensively.

“[Teams are saying] ‘Keep it a low-possession game against NKU. Don’t let them get into transition. Don’t let them increase possessions.’ And we’re falling into that a little too much.”

That makes Friday’s road game against surging Illinois-Chicago — which has won nine of its past 10 contests to pull to within a game of NKU and Wright State — even more intriguing. The Flames (17-12 overall, 12-4 Horizon League) average 75 points and feature a balanced attack with seven players scoring at least 6.8 points per contest, including talented sophomore forward Dikembe Dixson’s 14.1 ppg.

In the first meeting on Dec. 30, NKU sprinted out to a 35-8 lead and coasted to an 86-51 win over Illinois-Chicago at BB&T Arena.

“They are a totally different team now,” Brannen said of the Flames, shrugging off the first game’s result. “UIC is playing awesome, as well as anyone in our league.”

Sophomore guard Marcus Ottey averages 13.6 points, while 6-foot-9 Tai Odiase is scoring 9.2 ppg and has a Horizon League-leading 91 blocked shots. Sophomore guard Tarkus Ferguson is No. 2 in the Horizon League in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.3, and his 5.2 assists per game leads the team. Ferguson also averages 8.9 points per contest.

UIC sophomore forward Dikembe Dixson averages 14.1 points and has helped the Flames win nine of their past 10 games.

By winning 12 of their past 14 games, the Flames are in position to claim the No. 2 seed in the upcoming Horizon League Tournament. If Illinois-Chicago defeats both NKU and Wright State this weekend, the Flames will assure themselves of being at least the No. 2 seed.

NKU can clinch the No. 2 seed by defeating Illinois-Chicago on Friday night. The Norse still have an outside chance to earn the top seed with two wins this weekend, but it will require a loss by Wright State at either IUPUI on Friday or Illinois-Chicago on Sunday.

Wright State defeated NKU twice this season and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Norse.

In the win against Youngstown State on Monday, Drew McDonald poured in 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead NKU. McDonald now has 15 double-doubles this season and 31 in his career. The 6-foot-7 junior scored 16 points in the first half, including four 3-pointers.

McDonald averages 17.1 points per game, and his 9.4 rebounds per contest are No. 2 in the Horizon League. The Newport Central Catholic product enters Friday with 1,365 career points, which ranks 13th in Norse history. McDonald needs just three points to pass Chris Wall (1,367 points) for 12th place on the NKU all-time scoring list.

“Drew has carried us a number of times this season,” Brannen said. “He was awesome against Youngstown State in all phases of the game.”

Senior guard Lavone Holland II averages 13.2 points per game and leads NKU with 127 assists. He has also made 85.5 percent of his free throws and is second on the team with 29 steals.

“Lavone makes everybody’s job easier,” Brannen said. “There are plenty of guys that can score, plenty of guys that can rebound it. But the guy who makes it easier for everyone to do their job, that’s the sign of a great player. Lavone does so many things for us that you can’t see on a stat sheet.”

NKU closes out the regular season at IUPUI on Sunday. The tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.

The Horizon League Tournament begins March 2 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. If NKU earns either of the top two seeds, the Norse will not play until March 3. Should NKU drop to the No. 3 seed, it will play its first game against the No. 6 seed on March 4.

WHAT: Northern Kentucky (20-8, 13-3 HL) at Illinois-Chicago (17-12, 12-4 HL)
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 23, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Chicago, Ill.
ARENA: UIC Pavilion (8,000 capacity)
SERIES: NKU leads, 4-1



Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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