A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Don Owen: Torrid-shooting NKU blisters nets, cruises to exhibition win over Thomas More

A game story isn’t really necessary. After all, it doesn’t even count. The fact Northern Kentucky University surgically dispatched Thomas More University by an 84-47 score Tuesday night in an exhibition basketball game at BB&T Arena says it all.

Deeper, stronger and more athletic, NKU put away the visitors by converting a blistering 66 percent of its shots from the field in front of a crowd of 2,973. That 66 percent pales in comparison to NKU’s perfect 24-for-24 shooting in two-point attempts. Yes, the Norse made every shot taken inside the 3-point arc. That’s if you don’t count three missed free throws.

Playing in its final season at the NCAA Division III level before transitioning to the NAIA, Thomas More fell behind by 18 points (30-12) midway through the first half and was overwhelmed by the Norse during the final 20 minutes. NKU opened the second half with a 24-9 spurt to build a 68-34 advantage and cruised to the win.

NKU’s Drew McDonald scores against Thomas More in the second half Tuesday night. McDonald finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and three assists. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

For Thomas More, trying to defend NKU was nearly impossible. That’s usually the case when Division III meets Division I in hoops. It’s just a completely different game. It’s a good trotting horse attempting to finish ahead of a pricey Thoroughbred at Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May. It’s hoping for 90-degree temperatures in Greater Cincinnati in late January instead of icy roads. It’s not happening.

To put it somewhat in perspective, imagine NKU taking on the Golden State Warriors in an exhibition. That’s what it probably felt like for the Thomas More players trying to defend the Norse’s Drew McDonald, who did a good imitation of Kevin Durant with 14 points, nine rebounds and three assists in just 17 minutes of action.

“We have a young, inexperienced team and we haven’t played much together as far as outside competition goes,” said McDonald, who also drained a pair of 3-pointers. “So to finally come out here in a game-like setting [was good]. We’ve had a scrimmage, but this is an actual game. This felt like a game with people in the stands and the lights on.”

Exhibition games are just for fun, to give the fans a glimpse of their team, and allow the coaches to run sets against an outside opponent. It gives everyone on the roster a chance to play, assuming the margin is wide enough. But exhibitions tell you very little if you’re into making prognostications. Regardless of whom you rooted for Tuesday night, it was difficult to gauge where either team is at this point of the preseason.

It marked Justin Ray’s first game as Thomas More’s head coach, even if the result doesn’t count. He inherited three starters from a 23-6 team that advanced to last season’s NCAA Division III Tournament. The Saints are aiming for a berth in the NCAAs under the guidance of Ray, who is a head coach for the first time at the collegiate level.

“We were excited to go up against a team that was bigger, faster and stronger than us,” Ray said. “Overall, I know the score doesn’t show it, but we did a ton of good things that leaves me extremely optimistic going forward and getting back to a Division III schedule.

“Our thought going in was, ‘Don’t let them score in the post.’ You have to make them take outside jumpers because they’re so much bigger than us. To be honest, they were even better shooters than I thought going in. They lost some guys who could shoot it, but they reloaded and have guys who can really stroke it. NKU is going to be a really tough team.”

His counterpart, NKU’s John Brannen, is beginning his fourth season in Highland Heights. Brannen has built a solid Division I program that has made consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament (2017) and the NIT (2018), not to mention Horizon League Tournament and regular-season championships. Aware of the series history between the two schools, he felt it was important from a community perspective to play Thomas More, which at one time was NKU’s biggest rival when both programs competed at the small-college level.

Jalen Tate rises for a dunk during the first half of NKU’s 84-47 win against Thomas More. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“I’m really appreciative of Justin and the program at Thomas More for coming over and playing against us,” Brannen said. “I thought it was important, at some point, to renew the rivalry in the form of an exhibition game.”

Dantez Walton scored 13 points for NKU, while Bryant Mocaby (11 points), Tyler Sharpe (10) and Adrian Nelson (10) also netted double figures. Mocaby, the freshman sharpshooter from the state of Kansas, buried a trio of 3-pointers and added three assists in his NKU debut.

“I think he’s going to be outstanding,” Brannen said of Mocaby. “He gets his shot off quick, he has the size, and the guys have faith in him and trust him.”

Damion King led Thomas More with 14 points, but the Saints managed just 12 field goals the entire game. Brandon Horne added 13 points and six rebounds for the Saints, who did not hold an official practice until Oct. 15.

“With Division III rules, we can’t start until Oct. 15, so the first time we were on the floor together was 11 practices ago,” Ray said. “With a whole new system, I don’t care how many starters you have coming back, it takes times because everything is different. When you’re trying to learn and figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, it can’t hurt to have a really good team in front of you to speed that process up. And Northern is very good.”

Ray also noted that he wasn’t surprised by McDonald’s play, and not just because of the numerous preseason accolades the former Newport Central Catholic star has received this fall. “I attempted to recruit him when I was at Mount St. Joseph, and I asked his coach after the game, ‘Who’s that big guy? I really like him.’ The coach said, ‘Yeah, Drew’s got a couple of Division I offers and I don’t think he’s going to Mount St. Joe.’ I had to pass on him.

“Drew’s the real deal. He can put it on the floor, he has a really quick shot, and is so physical. Drew’s a load to deal with, whether you’re Division III or D-1. He’s outstanding.”

NKU finished with 26 assists, compared to five for Thomas More. The Norse bench outscored Thomas More’s bench by a 33-3 margin, and NKU owned a 46-4 advantage in points in the paint.

ALL IN THE FAMILY: McDonald’s uncle, Tom Freppon, played for Thomas More during the 1980s and competed against NKU when the two programs played for The Kentucky Post Long Rifle. On Feb. 9, 1985, Freppon and his Thomas More teammates nearly upset NKU, falling 42-40 in Regents Hall. The NewCath graduate had nine points in that contest. Also playing for Thomas More in that contest was David Justice, who went on to a successful career in Major League Baseball and was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1990. Justice netted nine points against NKU in that 1985 game.

Feb. 9, 1985
At Highland Heights, Ky.
Northern Kentucky 42, Thomas More 40

TMC (40): Freppon 3 3 9, Ward 2 0 4, Overberg 4 2 10, Haag 4 0 8, Justice 4 1 9. Totals 17 6 40.
NKU (42): Fleming 9 2 20, Davenport 1 0 2, Hock 4 2 10, Schlarman 2 1 5, Burns 1 3 5. Totals 17 8 42.

UP NEXT: NKU begins the regular season Nov. 6 with a home game against Wilmington (Ohio) at 7 p.m. Thomas More opens its season Nov. 9 with a road contest at Emory & Henry.


Damion King 4-10 5-6 14; Brandon Horne 3-8 5-6 13; Ryne Callahan 3-6 2-3 9; Garren Bertsch 1-5 2-2 5; Ralph Stone 0-2 3-4 3; Kamrin Boone 1-1 0-0 2; Kedan Davis 0-2 1-4 1; Braden Connor 0-0 0-0 0; Noah Pedelty 0-0 0-1 0; Max Knisley 0-0 0-0 0; JC Kinnaird 0-0 0-0 0; Chad McDonald 0-0 0-0 0; Antonio McKinney 0-2 0-0 0; Kort Justice 0-3 0-0 0; Dene White 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 12-39 18-26 47.
Drew McDonald 5-6 2-2 14; Dantez Walton 5-6 0-0 13; Bryant Mocaby 4-8 0-0 11; Adrian Nelson 5-6 0-0 10; Tyler Sharpe 4-9 1-1 10; Zaynah Robinson 3-3 0-2 8; Chris Vogt 3-3 0-0 6; Jalen Tate 3-6 0-0 6; Trevon Faulkner 1-2 0-0 2; Silas Adheke 1-3 0-1 2; Paul Djoko 1-1 0-0 2; David Wassler 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 35-53 3-6 84.
Thomas More…………….. 25 22 – 47
Northern Ky………………. 44 40 – 84

3-point goals–Thomas More 5-17 (Brandon Horne 2-3; Garren Bertsch 1-4; Ryne Callahan 1-4; Damion King 1-3; Kort Justice 0-2; Ralph Stone 0-1), Northern Ky. 11-29 (Dantez Walton 3-4; Bryant Mocaby 3-7; Zaynah Robinson 2-2; Drew McDonald 2-3; Tyler Sharpe 1-6; Adheke 0-2; Trevon Faulkner 0-1; Jalen Tate 0-3; Adrian Nelson 0-1). Fouled out–Thomas More-None, Northern Ky.-Trevon Faulkner. Rebounds–Thomas More 23 (Brandon Horne 6; Ralph Stone 6), Northern Ky. 29 (Drew McDonald 9). Assists–Thomas More 5 (Damion King 2), Northern Ky. 26 (Zaynah Robinson 7). Total fouls–Thomas More 10, Northern Ky. 24. Technical fouls—Thomas More-None, Northern Ky.-None. A-2,973

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

Related Posts

Leave a Comment