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Don Owen: Motivated and focused, NKU continues to prove toughness overcomes adversity

Be completely honest. Think back to October, just a few weeks before the college basketball season tipped off. Did you really expect to see Northern Kentucky sporting an impressive 14-6 record at this point in the season?

Now, be completely honest again. After watching Jalen Tate miss 10 games due to a broken hand, and later learn Dantez Walton would be out for an indefinite period with a chest/shoulder injury, did anyone believe NKU would only be a game out of first place in the Horizon League standings on Jan. 18?

If most Norse fans are sincere, they’ll probably answer no to both questions. But NKU is indeed 14-6 overall after rolling to a 75-49 victory over Cleveland State on Saturday night at BB&T Arena. The Norse — now 6-2 in the Horizon League — extended their winning streak to five games and set up a first-place showdown at Wright State (7-1) next Friday night.

Given the fact NKU graduated All-American Drew McDonald, lost head coach John Brannen in late April and then watched its entire recruiting class from the previous fall unceremoniously decommit, it appeared this might be something of a rebuilding season. That was before Tate (arguably the Horizon League’s best all-around player) and Walton (NKU’s leading scorer) suffered injuries.

NKU’s Tyler Sharpe (15) maneuvers past Cleveland State defenders Franklyn Penn (4) and Torrey Patton. Sharpe scored 18 points to ignite NKU’s 75-49 win. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

None of that adversity has stopped NKU. Much of the credit goes to tough-minded players who have meshed into a cohesive unit. From Tate to Walton to Tyler Sharpe to Trevon Faulkner and many others, the Norse continue to show they aren’t about individuals.

NKU isn’t just a team. NKU is now a program consisting of strong-willed individuals who have bonded to form a winning culture. And it’s being clearly demonstrated this season under Darrin Horn, in his first year as the Norse’s head coach.

Considering the injuries and other factors, what would the Lexington native have said if you had told him this team would be 14-6 at the moment?

“I would say I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” Horn replied after NKU demolished Cleveland State in front of a crowd of 4,390. “I give all the credit to our players. In addition (to the injuries), we’ve played a much-increased non-conference schedule with a ton of those games on the road. And we’ve already won six road games.

“Our guys have shown great maturity and resilience throughout this whole process. It’s been a learning experience for me, to try and figure out the next step when an injury happens. I think the biggest thing is that our defense hasn’t changed. That has helped. But it’s hard for a young person to get comfortable with something, and then maybe is asked to become comfortable with something else [due to injuries]. Our guys have really responded to those challenges.”

The current NKU roster is comprised of players who detest losing. More importantly, they’re loyal to the program. When difficult times arrived with Brannen’s departure in April, they tenaciously stood their ground in Highland Heights.

Horn, hired long after most recruits had signed in the spring, inherited some remarkably tough players at NKU. He’s also been a stabilizing presence for the program during the adversity.

NKU’s Adrian Nelson (4) goes inside for a basket during the second half of the Norse’s 75-49 win over Cleveland State. Nelson also grabbed 10 rebounds. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“Ultimately, it’s a player’s game,” Horn said. “Our job is to put them in position to be the best they can, and then when the lights come on, they go do it for each other.”

Last season, the term “slippage” was used several times after NKU losses, most notably after the shocking upset to Cleveland State on Senior Night at BB&T Arena. That wasn’t the case on Saturday night, when the Norse used an 18-0 run to build a 26-9 lead and ran the Vikings off the court.

Faulkner poured in 24 points to lead NKU. The sophomore from Mercer County High School shot 8-for-10 from the field and made all six of his free throws. Sharpe added 18 points — all in the first half — burying a trio of long-range treys.

Adrian Nelson continued his emergence as one of the top rebounders in the Horizon League, hauling in 10 boards and scoring eight points. It marked the fourth consecutive game in which Nelson has finished with double-digit rebound totals.

“I understand my role for this team is to provide rebounding,” said Nelson, a 6-foot-7 sophomore who is quickly developing into a dominant force on the glass.

Pay close attention to what Nelson said about understanding roles. That’s one of the keys to NKU’s success.

While NKU no doubt remembered last season’s home setback against Cleveland State, the players didn’t bring it up in the postgame press conference. They also graciously refused to say it provided additional motivation when asked.

So, how do you explain that 14-6 record with all the adversity?

“It’s a testament to our coaching staff and the guys who are healthy,” said Sharpe, who has emerged as a candidate for Horizon League Player of the Year honors. “We obviously know Dantez being out right now is a huge piece we’re missing. We have to rally around this as a full team. One guy can’t go out there and make up for what Dantez does.

“He was scoring about 30 points a game during that one stretch right before he was hurt. Dantez also does so many things defensively, being a senior, talking on defense, rebounding and blocking shots. It takes a total team effort to make up for what he does.”

NKU has done that exceedingly well, having gone 6-3 after losing Walton and his 18.4 points per game. No one at NKU is saying when the 6-foot-6 senior might return, but everyone is encouraged by his progress. The assumption is Walton will be back sometime in February.

Now, be completely honest one more time. Will you be surprised if a full-strength NKU squad repeats as Horizon League champions in March?

I didn’t think so.


Eichelberger 6-14 5-7 17, Gomillion 2-3 0-0 4, Patton 3-10 0-0 6, Thomas 0-3 4-4 4, Hill 3-12 5-11 11, Johnson 2-3 0-0 4, Beaudion 0-3 0-0 0, Penn 0-3 3-4 3. Totals 16-51 17-26 49.
Sharpe 4-9 7-8 18, Adheke 2-6 2-2 6, Faulkner 8-10 6-6 24, Langdon 0-8 7-8 7, Tate 2-5 0-0 4, Eleeda 2-5 0-0 6, Nelson 4-5 0-1 8, Harris 1-2 0-0 2, Djoko 0-0 0-0 0, Mocaby 0-3 0-0 0, Cobbs 0-2 0-0 0, Wassler 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-57 22-25 75.
HALFTIME: NKU 38-21. 3-POINTERS: (NKU 7-24, CSU 0-5). REBOUNDS: NKU 40 (Nelson 10), CSU 35 (Patton 9).
RECORDS: NKU 14-6, 6-2 HL; CSU 7-13, 3-4 HL.

NKU defenders Silas Adheke (0) and Jalen Tate (11) block the path of Cleveland State’s Kasheem Thomas (2) on Saturday night. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

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