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Don Owen: Exactly 24 years ago, a walk with Ken Shields was a journey into NKU history

National television beckoned for the first time in school history. An NCAA championship would be at stake in less than 48 hours. It was March 21, 1996, and Northern Kentucky had just knocked off powerful Virginia Union in the NCAA Division II Final Four.

NKU head coach Ken Shields was wrapping up a surreal evening at the Commonwealth Convention Center in Louisville with a final one-on-one interview with a newspaper reporter. The makeshift basketball site had just provided one of the classic games in Division II history, as LaRon Moore hit a 12-foot turnaround jumper in the closing seconds to give NKU a 68-66 win over Virginia Union.

The NKU players — Moore, Andre McClendon and Paul Cluxton — had already done their mandatory interviews at the NCAA postgame press conference. The media, though, wanted plenty of one-on-one interviews with Shields. So did some officials from CBS, which would be televising NKU’s national championship game against unbeaten Fort Hays State.

I was the NKU sports information director in those days. I entered the Commonwealth Convention Center that evening carrying a weight of about 200 pounds. Several hours and numerous SID duties later, I was probably closer to 190 on the scales.

LaRon Moore releases the winning shot over Virginia Union’s Ben Wallace in the closing seconds of the 1996 national semifinals. Moore’s basket gave NKU a 68-66 lead with 3.2 seconds remaining. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Under normal circumstances during the regular season, I usually dealt with TKR Cable, The Kentucky Post, The Northerner and the local TV stations, plus any visiting media in Regents Hall. All of a sudden, The Enquirer jumped on board the NKU victory wagon. They even sent a columnist. The interest grew exponentially once NKU arrived in Louisville.

The Associated Press was at the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. Dan Bonner from CBS wanted to speak with us since he would be the color analyst for the national title telecast. Plus, there were tons of other media who wanted to know the actual meaning of “Norse.” There was no internet in those days (thank goodness), but my hotel room answering machine was filled with interview requests.

Don Weber, Trip Topken, Tom Gamble and Chris Gramke knew the players and coaches and didn’t need my help. Everyone else did.

When everything finished that evening after the Virginia Union victory, it was well after midnight. The team had already returned to the hotel. So had the numerous NKU boosters, students and staff that had watched the Norse advance to the NCAA national title game for the first time in program history.

Shields — whose good-natured personality and fantastic quotes made him the media darling at the NCAA Division II Elite Eight — wrapped up the interview with the reporter and asked me if that was the final one. I told him that was it, but everyone had already departed the arena. He laughed and said, “I can use another good walk. It worked last night.”

“Last night,” you ask? Yes. Same thing happened 24 hours earlier.

Allow me to explain. Our hotel was the Galt House, about two blocks down the street from the Commonwealth Convention Center. The previous night, NKU had defeated Cal State Bakersfield in the closing seconds of the national quarterfinals. By the time Shields had finished his postgame media duties after that last-second victory, we were the only remaining NKU personnel in the building. So we walked back to the Galt House. Now, we were doing it again. After another win.

Creatures of habit, you say? Maybe.

NKU head coach Ken Shields (right) with Norse players Andre McClendon (center) and LaRon Moore (left) speak to the media after defeating Virginia Union in 1996.

As we approached the Galt House after NKU’s win over Virginia Union, we could see the fans and parents celebrating inside the lobby. “Do you think anyone will stick around to give us a lift back to NKU if we win the national championship on Saturday?” I jokingly asked Shields.

Flashing a big grin, he shook his head and replied, “Donald, if we win Saturday, we’re walking back to the hotel again.”

Completely worn out, I laughed and politely said, “I think we will have checked out of the hotel Saturday morning. They’ll have a big celebration planned on campus later that night.”

Shields chuckled. “Well, we can still walk back here after the game. Remember, the Elite Eight is here again next season.”

As it turned out, Fort Hays State removed the need for that postgame walk by defeating NKU in the national title showdown on Saturday. But a year later, NKU repeated as Great Lakes Region champions. The Norse returned to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Louisville.

And after NKU defeated Texas A&M-Commerce in the 1997 national quarterfinals, Shields and I again walked back to the Galt House. Same thing after the Norse convincingly beat Lynn (Fla.) in the national semifinals. Nothing like a stroll at 1 a.m. in downtown Louisville after a victory in March.

Creatures of habit? Maybe. Superstitious? Possibly. Ridiculous? No, simply walking down a seldom-used, little-known path in Norse history.

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

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