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No longer intense rivals on the basketball court, NKU and Thomas More meet in exhibition game Tuesday

By Don Owen
NKyTribune reporter

Back in the 1970s, when both basketball programs competed at the small-college level, Northern Kentucky and Thomas More met each season and developed an intense rivalry. There was even a traveling trophy — The Kentucky Post Long Rifle — that went to the winner of the annual showdown.

Fast-forward to this Tuesday night, when Thomas More will visit NKU for an exhibition game at 7 p.m. The venue is now 9,400-seat BB&T Arena, not the cozy confines of Regents Hall that once showcased the local rivalry. NKU has successfully transitioned to NCAA Division I, while Thomas More is in its final season of competing at the NCAA Division III level before making the move to the NAIA.

Jeff Stowers (right) accepts The Kentucky Post Long Rifle from state Rep. Art Schmidt after Northern Kentucky defeated Thomas More during the 1975-76 season.

The Kentucky Post Long Rifle is now a distant memory, as is the NKU/Thomas More series. The two programs haven’t met since Nov. 25, 2006, when the Norse posted an 86-61 win over the Saints in Regents Hall. NKU All-American Steven Wright poured in 21 points and grabbed six rebounds to lead the Norse to that victory.

When the series was discontinued, NKU owned a 30-5 lead and had won 21 consecutive games against Thomas More. The Saints’ last victory against the Norse occurred on Feb. 14, 1981, when Thomas More pulled off a 61-52 upset in Regents Hall.

That game, however, was 37 years ago. None of the current players on either team had been born. In fact, current NKU head coach John Brannen was just a kid in elementary school when Thomas More shocked their rivals in Highland Heights in 1981.

Brannen and his Norse aren’t likely to be caught napping Tuesday night in the exhibition contest against the Saints. The fourth-year NKU head coach told the media last week his team is “a work in progress” and still an unknown in many respects.

“You never really know what you have until you go play an opponent,” Brannen said at NKU’s media day. “What I like about this year’s team is the camaraderie, the connections they’ve made with each other, the culture that we’ve built that will increase and not just maintain.

“But as far as the responsibilities and what we get done on the court, that’s still to come. Last year’s team was an elite defensive team and an elite offensive team. We’re nowhere near those two things yet. We’re still a work in progress, just like last year’s team was at this time.”

Drew McDonald enters his senior season 11th on the NKU all-time scoring list with 1,431 points, and he is fifth in Norse history with 762 rebounds. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

That NKU squad posted a 22-10 record and captured the Horizon League regular-season championship. The Norse return senior forward Drew McDonald, who averaged 17.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last season and recorded 18 double-doubles. The Cold Spring native’s 18 double-doubles ranked 11th in the nation and have helped him land a plethora of preseason accolades.

The 6-foot-8 McDonald has been chosen as the Horizon League preseason Player of the Year and is one of 20 candidates for the 2019 Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award. The Newport Central Catholic graduate owns 34 double-doubles in 97 career games played at NKU.

McDonald enters his senior season 11th on the NKU all-time scoring list with 1,431 points, and he is fifth in Norse history with 762 rebounds.

“Drew’s a young man who’s represented this university, his family and this basketball program in a first-class manner in everything he does,” Brannen said, also noting McDonald won a gold medal this summer playing for the United States at the FISU America Games in São Paulo, Brazil. “He deserves all the success and accolades he’s achieved.”

NKU also welcomes back defensive wizard Jalen Tate, a 6-foot-6 sophomore guard who was selected to Horizon League’s preseason second team. Tate, who averaged 5.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game, earned Horizon League All-Defensive Team accolades last season and collected All-Freshman Team honors as well. Two other key returnees are 6-foot-7 junior forward Dantez Walton (5.3 ppg) and 6-1 junior guard Tyler Sharpe (6.7 ppg, 46-for-121 from 3-point range).

NKU must replace forward Jordan Garnett (6.7 points per game), point guard Lavone Holland II (13.8 ppg) and forward Carson Williams (12.0 ppg) from its Horizon League regular-season championship team. Brannen did not reveal who will step in for Holland at the point, but redshirt freshman Paul Djoko and Norfolk State transfer Zaynah Robinson appear to be the leading candidates.

Thomas More won the Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship last season, earned a berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament and finished with a 23-6 record. The Saints welcome back three starters, including All-Region guard Damion King (15.2 points per game).

Damion King

King, a senior from Winchester and a graduate of George Rogers Clark High School, was also named the Presidents’ Athletic Conference Player of the Year last season. He netted his 1,000th career point on Feb. 10 last season during a 65-50 victory over Waynesburg.

Other key returnees for the Saints are senior guard Brandon Horne (10.5 ppg) and senior guard Ryne Callahan (10.2 ppg).

Tuesday’s exhibition will mark the Thomas More sideline debut for first-year head coach Justin Ray, who was an assistant at Mount St. Joseph last season. Ray replaced Drew Cooper, who accepted the job at Kentucky Wesleyan in the spring.

A year ago, Thomas More visited Rupp Arena for an exhibition game against Kentucky. The Wildcats built a 53-30 halftime lead and cruised to a 103-61 victory over the Saints in that exhibition contest in front of a crowd of 19,736.

King scored 13 points to lead Thomas More against UK. Callahan added nine points, and Horne chipped in seven points. The Saints shot 29.6 percent from the field against the taller Wildcats and were 8-for-25 from 3-point range.

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.

BETTER BUY A TICKET: Tuesday’s exhibition game between NKU and Thomas More will not be broadcast on radio and is not being televised/streamed for viewing.

THE FIRST TIME: Northern Kentucky State College and Thomas More College met in basketball for the first time on Dec. 23, 1972, in Regents Hall. Thomas More prevailed by a 92-74 score in that contest. Here is the boxscore from that first game between the two programs:

Dec. 23, 1972
at Highland Heights, Ky.
Thomas More 92, Northern Kentucky 74

TMC (92): Beck 3 5 11, Timon 11 3 25, Batsche 2 1 5, Otte 6 8 20, Volpenhein 6 2 14, Risheberger 2 1 5, Arnzen 0 3 3, Eling 1 3 5, Clark 1 0 2, Remke 1 0 2. Totals 33 26 92.

NKSC (74): Derkson 3 0 6, Berger 6 1 13, Meier 2 0 4, Stowers 4 2 10, McMillan 4 1 9, Maurer 6 2 14, Egan 0 2 2, Ballinger 3 4 10, Mitts 1 0 2, Griffin 1 2 4, Wilcox 0 0 0. Totals 30 14 74.

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

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