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Don Owen: A win over Wright State is always sweet, but NKU gained much more on Friday night

Be honest if you’re a fan of Northern Kentucky University basketball, especially if you remember the games in cozy Regents Hall. Don’t pretend to be that all-knowing sports aficionado, or equipped with some seventh sense about college hoops.

Did you ever really think you’d see the day when NKU and Wright State — a pair of one-time rivals at the NCAA Division II level — were squaring off on national television as full-fledged Division I programs? And, more to the point, meeting as the top two teams from the Horizon League preseason poll in front of a crowd of 5,848 on the NKU campus?

I didn’t think so. Neither did I. And I worked at NKU as the sports information director/media relations liaison for more than 20 years.

NKU’s Jalen Tate (11) goes over Wright State’s Loudon Love for a basket in the first half. Tate finished with 19 points and seven rebounds. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

All those details made Friday night’s Horizon League showdown between NKU and Wright State all the more fascinating. It was televised live on ESPN2. The BB&T Arena crowd was deafening. And the charged-up atmosphere was absolutely mega-dynamic — for any level of college basketball.

Energized by the raucous crowd, NKU rallied in the second half and held on for a thrilling 68-64 victory over Wright State. The Norse improved to 14-4 overall, 4-1 in the Horizon League. NKU also extended its home winning streak to 15 games and gained a share of first place in the Horizon League standings with Detroit Mercy.

Wright State dropped to 8-10 overall, 2-3 in the Horizon League.

Drew McDonald scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead NKU, while teammate Jalen Tate added 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists. After shooting just 28.6 percent from the field in the first half, the Norse trailed by a 30-27 score at the break. But NKU connected on 68.2 percent of its shots in the second half — including a dagger 3-pointer by McDonald in the final minute that gave the Norse a 67-62 cushion — and delighted a frenzied crowd that played a role in the victory.

“Sometimes we didn’t have things going, but the crowd was incredible and just picked us up,” said McDonald, who buried a career-high tying five 3-pointers. “The fans were on their feet and it was really loud. That kind of support helps change the momentum and impact games. That’s why it’s so hard to win on the road.”

Tyler Sharpe finished with 14 points and three assists for NKU, which is in its seventh season of playing at the Division I level. Wright State, meanwhile, made the jump to big-time athletics back in the mid-1980s after winning the NCAA Division II national championship in men’s basketball.

NKU’s Tyler Sharpe drives between Wright State defenders Bill Wampler (1) and Cole Gentry (31). Sharpe scored 14 points in the NKU win. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

The Raiders still own a 23-11 lead in the all-time series with NKU, but most of those wins occurred during the Division II era for both programs. Since NKU joined the Horizon League in the 2015-16 season, the series is now even at 4-4.

It’s an amazing feat that NKU has nearly caught up with its primary rival in such a short amount of time at the Division I level. Keep in mind that while Wright State was competing as a Division I program for more than two decades, NKU was a member of the Great Lakes Valley Conference in Division II. And despite what some will say, there’s a huge difference between the talent levels — and budgets — of Division I and II basketball.

While the actual move to NCAA Division I status was marked by a drama-bordering-on-comedy moment (go research the expected invite from the Ohio Valley Conference in 2011 that never materialized) and then redemption (the Atlantic Sun Conference graciously stepping in and granting NKU membership a month after the OVC debacle), the past three years of Norse athletics have been remarkable to watch. Not just the victories. If you get a chance, check out the superb academic performances of the NKU sports teams. It has emerged as a well-rounded athletics program in every imaginable way. The growth has been spectacular.

That’s particularly true about the men’s basketball program, which is a powerful marketing vehicle for NKU.

Two years ago, NKU won the Horizon League Tournament championship. That earned the Norse a berth in the NCAA Tournament field — against, yes, the University of Kentucky. Talk about significant advertising, both locally and nationally. It doesn’t get any better than NKU playing UK in March Madness on CBS.

Well, only if the Norse had knocked off the favored Wildcats in that NCAA Tournament first-round game. Back to the present, though.

On Friday night, NKU demonstrated an uncanny relentlessness in rallying for the win. The Norse also overcame Wright State’s Loudon Love, a 6-foot-9, 280-pound mountain on the inside who finished with 16 points and six rebounds. NKU held Wright State to just 3-for-15 shooting from 3-point range and limited the Raiders to 38.7 percent from the field in the second half.

NKU’s Drew McDonald (34) reacts after hitting a key 3-pointer with less than a minute remaining. McDonald finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

The noise picked up considerably on two key defensive stops late in the game, and everyone — players and coaches included — noticed it.

“It was an electric crowd,” NKU head coach John Brannen said. “I am very appreciative of our fans for coming out in droves, the white-out promotion, everything. This is what college basketball is supposed to be. This is what BB&T Arena can be if we can continue to get people to come out and enjoy an extremely competitive rivalry game.

“Plus, a national television audience saw this game. It just continues to build our brand. What people saw tonight, it’s who we are at NKU. It gives people an idea of how fun basketball can be here at BB&T Arena. Drew McDonald and Jalen Tate took over late in the game, and Tyler Sharpe gets 14 points without hitting a 3-pointer.”

Tate shot 8-for-10 from the field as NKU avenged a pair of losses to Wright State last season. The sophomore guard, always known for his defense, has emerged as one of the top all-around players in the Horizon League with his penetrating moves to the basket.

“Coming off the bench, you see the other team’s coverages,” said Tate, noting Wright State’s big men pressed up defensively to guard McDonald on the perimeter. “That opens up a lot of things for us guards. I’m just taking what the defense gives me.”

Though early in the schedule, NKU is definitely in good position to repeat as Horizon League regular-season champions. Then there’s Motor City Madness — the Horizon League Tournament — that will determine the conference’ automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament in March. But that’s two months away, and NKU is focused on the present — and keeping the BB&T winning streak intact.

“In order to win the regular-season title, you have to defend your home floor,” McDonald said, “and to have an advantage like this at home is huge.”

So be honest if you’re a longtime NKU fan who goes back to the GLVC days. You never envisioned NKU playing Wright State on national television. And certainly not in front of 5,848 fans on the NKU campus. After all, Regents Hall only has a 1,650 seating capacity for basketball. And no one ever imagined a 9,400-seat facility like BB&T Arena being built in Highland Heights.

Well, unless you’re equipped with some seventh sense about both state politics and NKU hoops.

In front of 5,848 fans at BB&T Arena, NKU extended its home winning streak to 15 games and gained a share of first place in the Horizon League standings with Detroit Mercy. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

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