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NKU plays host to NCAA Tourney upset specialists from UMBC on Friday night at BB&T Arena

By Don Owen
NKyTribune reporter

Long before the rest of the nation knew what the letters U-M-B-C stood for last March, Northern Kentucky University was acutely aware of the Retrievers from Maryland-Baltimore County.

That’s because NKU squared off against UMBC last season in Baltimore, dropping a last-second 76-75 decision on Dec. 17, 2017. Three months later, UMBC emerged as the icon for college basketball underdogs when the Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a stunning 74-54 victory over Virginia in the opening round.

NKU’s Tyler Sharpe scored a career-high 28 points at Morehead State on Tuesday. He averages 13.4 points and 2.3 steals per game. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“I think we knew they had a chance to keep it close with whomever they were matched up against because they had a really good-shooting team,” said NKU junior guard Tyler Sharpe of UMBC’s historic win over Virginia. “Upsets happen when teams can shoot, and they have very good players.”

NKU (7-1) and UMBC meet Friday night at BB&T Arena at 7 p.m. A year ago, UMBC turned to the penetrating drives and quick moves of Jairus Lyles to knock off NKU. Lyles pumped in a game-high 31 points as UMBC survived a last-second NKU shot attempt to pull out the 76-75 win over the visiting Norse.

Lyles has since graduated and UMBC is currently 4-3. NKU will now face a UMBC squad that features Joe Sherburne, who leads the Retrievers in scoring at 12.6 points. Brandon Horvath (11.3 ppg), Arkel Lamar (10.9 ppg) and Max Curren (10.3 ppg) also average double figures in a balanced offensive attack.

UMBC has lost two straight games entering Friday, having suffered setbacks to South Dakota (58-52) and American (73-69).

NKU is coming off a 93-71 road win over Morehead State on Tuesday. Drew McDonald collected the second triple-double in NKU history with 12 points, 14 rebounds and a career-high 11 assists.

“We knew they were going to double me quick on the post, and my teammates had it going by making their shots,” said McDonald, who joined Craig Conley in the Norse’s triple-double club. “It wasn’t anything forced. It was just part of the game plan, knowing Morehead would double down. I made the passes, and my teammates did a great job of finishing.”

McDonald’s ability to find the open man didn’t surprise his coaches or teammates.

“All you have to do is make yourself available for Drew, and he will find you,” NKU head coach John Brannen said. “Our guys were really active with their cutting, and they were doubling him on the post. We’re a high-assist team because we don’t really break down teams. We’re more move the ball and get a great shot. Drew is such an elite passer and guys were making shots, so it goes hand in hand.”

McDonald leads four Norse averaging double digits on the year at 18.8 points. He also leads the team with 10.4 rebounds per game (19th in nation). His four double-doubles rank ninth nationally. The former Newport Central Catholic star is also nearing NKU’s all-time rebound record. He is currently second in NKU history with 845 rebounds and needs 15 boards to break LaRon Moore’s Norse record of 859.

NKU’s Drew McDonald finished with 12 points, 14 rebounds and a career-high 11 assists in a 93-71 win at Morehead State. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Sharpe netted a career-high 28 points against Morehead State to lead the NKU scoring attack. He buried five 3-pointers and was 8-for-14 from the field. Zaynah Robinson added 20 points, five rebounds and four assists for the Norse, who blistered the nets for 67.9 percent shooting in the second half and 62.7 percent for the game.

“I was able to get in a rhythm, Drew found me wide open on one of the first plays of the second half and I was able to get it going,” Sharpe said. “After that, I found myself open several times and just knocked the shots down.”

LAUGHING MATTER: Brannen chuckled when asked if he ever recorded a triple-double as a player. “Anybody who saw me play knows I never came close to the assist part of a triple-double,” Brannen said. “I know Caris LeVert of Michigan had one against us when we played up there, and now Drew’s triple-double. But, no, I never had a triple-double as a player.”

TRIPLE-THREAT: McDonald vividly recalled the Michigan game and LeVert’s triple-double. “The only one I remembered being a part of was Caris LeVert when we played at Michigan,” he said. “The only reason I remember it is because I missed a free throw in the second half and he got his 10th rebound on it. The place went nuts and we had no idea why.”

TATE UPDATE: Brannen also addressed Jalen Tate’s groin injury: “It’s wait and see. The doctor has ordered rest for Jalen, and he’s evaluated each day,” Brannen said of the NKU sophomore defensive standout, who missed the Central Florida game last Saturday. “No timetable on him to return.”

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

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