Milwaukee, WI – As the leading scorers of both teams watched the entire game from their teams’ respective benches, the Northern Kentucky Norse traveled to Milwaukee on Thursday night and defeated the Panthers 65-55 to improve their Horizon League record to 12-5. Coupled with Wright State’s loss to Green Bay, the Norse ended the evening tied with Wright State for the best record in the Horizon as both teams conclude their regular season schedule on Saturday.
Leading Northern Kentucky with 19.6 scoring and 9.9 rebounding per game averages, senior Drew McDonald has started all of the his team’s first 29 games. He played over 29 minutes in the Norse’s last game five days earlier and participated actively as Northern Kentucky went through its pregame paces on Thursday. “We wanted to give him some rest,” said Northern Kentucky Assistant Coach Tim Morris in explaining why McDonald did not play. The reason why Darius Roy, Milwaukee’s top scorer at 15.8 points per game, was unavailable was more obvious; he wore a walking boot on his left foot as he made his way onto the court. “It’s tough to replace a guy like Darius,” said Milwaukee Coach Pat Baldwin.
While Northern Kentucky Coach John Brannen could not be expected to look down his bench and find an equal replacement for the 6-8 McDonald, a five-time conference player of the week winner this season and a player only two points away from cracking the 2,000 career point mark, he did have a suitable substitute in 7-1 sophomore Chris Vogt. Playing a career-high 28 minutes, Vogt made 8 of 12 shots in scoring 16 points, 12 in the second half as he helped the Norse rally from a six-point halftime deficit.
Vogt is a one-level scorer who does his work deep in the paint. He’s quick to run the court and found success sealing his defender in the paint in the Norse’s early offense. Vogt, a right-hand dominant shooter, backed down the smaller and lighter Milwaukee bigs to score over both his shoulders with both his hands. “Chris is really talented and he proved that tonight,” said Morris. “He was aggressive and assertive and he really scored the ball. Chris has great feet and moves well laterally. He went left more than he went right even though I thought a couple of times the easier shot for him was to the right.” Milwaukee Coach Pat Baldwin added, “They started going inside in the second half and got some buckets from Vogt. We weren’t very good at helping the helper. Vogt was the big difference.”
McDonald is one of two returning starters for Northern Kentucky this season. The other is sophomore Jalen Tate, a wiry 6-6 wing who plays with a great pace and a high level of efficiency. As with Vogt, Tate knocked down 8 of 12 shots, pulled down a team-high seven rebounds, handed out three assists and committed no turnovers. “I thought he (Tate) played with good patience tonight,” said Morris. “He was a calming influence at that position.” Northern Kentucky runs a four-out, one-in offense that allows opportunities for a slasher like Tate to attack the rim both with and without the ball. A two-way player who led the Norse in steals and blocks last season in garnering a spot on the league’s all-defensive team, Tate helped Northern Kentucky hold Milwaukee to under 40 percent shooting from the field. He got up into Milwaukee guard Bryce Barnes at the six-minute mark of the game to block his shot in forcing a shot-clock violation.
Both teams combined to make 9 of 14 shots before the first timeout in what had the makings of a high-scoring game. But both teams turned up their defensive intensity in the last ten minutes of the half and Northern Kentucky added a fullcourt element to its defense. The pace of the game slowed and the scoring subsided. “We missed a lot of lay-ups in the first half,” said Morris. Neither team cracked the 40 percent shooting mark nor sported a double-digit scorer as the first half ended with Milwaukee ahead 34-28.
Continuing to pressure Milwaukee endline-to-endline, Northern Kentucky was the aggressor coming out of intermission. When the Norse were not forcing turnovers in the Milwaukee backcourt, they were forcing the Panthers to expend energy and time advancing the ball into their frontcourt. “(Fullcourt pressure) is part of one of our packages,” said Morris. “We pressed them some the first time we played them.” On the offensive end, the Norse were hitting the offensive boards with more gusto in the second half and getting to more 50/50 balls as well. After collecting only two offensive rebounds in the first half, Northern Kentucky pulled down eight rebounds off the offensive glass in the second half.
With McDonald sitting this one out, the Northern Kentucky player with the highest scoring average was guard Tyler Sharpe, a 6-1 junior who played his first collegiate season at Louisville and entered the game with a 14.1 ppg scoring average. A left-handed shooter, Sharpe is a sniper who averages two-and-a-half made triples each game. He knocked one down early, but misfired on six other three-point tries in finishing with 10 points. But Sharpe played a strong floor game pulling down five rebounds and making a game-high four steals. “Even though his shot wasn’t falling, I thought Tyler kept making the right plays,” said Morris.
Milwaukee was led by Vance Johnson, a 6-8 senior with an inside-outside scoring skill set. Johnson does his best work on the low block as a back-to the basket scorer. He scored on back-to-back hook shots in the second half, the first a running hook off one foot and the second a jump hook off two feet. He also popped out to above the top of the key to knock down a shot from distance in the first half. Johnson’s 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists led the Panthers.
With Roy sidelined, junior DeAndre Abram carried the highest scoring average into the game among Milwaukee players. Averaging over 12 ppg and coming off a two-game road swing where he averaged 17 points, Abram found himself a focus of the Northern Kentucky defense. Although entering the game with below average shooting percentages from the field and beyond the arc, Abram is an ignitable shooter who can get hot at a moment’s notice. At 6-8, he has excellent size for a wing and can shoot over most defenders he comes across in the Horizon League. But Norse defenders rarely gave Abram open looks from the perimeter and his paths to the basket were often contested by secondary defenders. “He’s (Abram) a shooter and he always feels like he’s open,” said Morris. “We wanted to be there on his shot with hard contests. The guys did a good job following the scouting report.”
The defeat ran Milwaukee’s string of losses to 10 and left the Panthers tied with Cleveland State for last place. With the Horizon League inviting only its top eight teams to the post-season tournament in Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland State will be the two schools not to participate. While naturally disappointed with the defeat, Baldwin was not discouraged. “If you would have seen us in shoot-around, you would have seen our guys were loose and eager to play,” said the first-year Milwaukee coach. “Our spirits are high despite not being a position where we can continue playing. I didn’t see any quit in our guys.”
Both teams conclude their regular season on March 2. With a stake in a Horizon League regular season championship on the line, Northern Kentucky finishes at Green Bay while Milwaukee hosts Wright State.