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NKU parlays tough defense, blistering shooting into 91-63 victory over EKU on Sunday night

By Don Owen
KyForward reporter

Often overlooked by college basketball fans in this age of 3-pointers and high-flying dunks, stingy defensive efforts are greatly valued by head coaches.

John Brannen appreciates tough defense that plays with energy, and he had much to applaud Sunday night while watching his Northern Kentucky University squad totally dismantle Eastern Kentucky University, 91-63, at BB&T Arena.

NKU’s Dantez Walton against EKU (Choe Smith/NKU)

NKU (7-3) sizzled the nets for 71.4 percent shooting from the field in the second half to run away from EKU and finished with a whopping 64-22 advantage in points in the paint. The Norse inside duo of Drew McDonald (23 points, nine rebounds) and Carson Williams (21 points, six rebounds, five steals) dominated play around the basket, combining for 19-of-23 shooting (83 percent) from the field.

But it was the defensive intensity that impressed Brannen.

“Our focus was energy, effort, playing to our identity,” he said. “Our identity is on defense. Be aggressive and disruptive on defense, and we were really good in those areas tonight.”

Brannen’s team certainly made things miserable for the visiting Colonels on Sunday night. NKU’s defense held All-Ohio Valley Conference forward Nick Mayo to just nine points on 4-for-10 shooting from the field. The 6-foot-9 Mayo entered the game averaging 18.1 points per contest, and he had made 55.8 percent of his shots from the field.

“Carson Williams, Jeff Garrett and Dantez Walton were assigned to Mayo, and they did a fantastic job,” Brannen said. “We tried to deny him the ball, and we picked him up at half-court, something he probably doesn’t see too often. We tried to keep a body-and-a-half around him, and the defense was phenomenal.”

The Norse throttled the EKU big man, who scored just three points in the first half as NKU built a 37-29 lead.

“We were fronting the post and making sure help-side was behind,” Williams said of the defensive effort on Mayo.

At halftime, the strategy had worked to perfection. Mayo was 1-for-6 from the field against the active, physical NKU inside defenders.

“We wanted to make his life difficult, because he’s a really good player,” McDonald said. “Just make him really work, maybe wear him down a little, and it gave us an advantage.”

McDonald, meanwhile, was nearly unstoppable inside. The 6-foot-7 junior forward shot 10-for-13 from the field with an assortment of moves against EKU’s 1-3-1 zone. McDonald netted 15 points in the first half of 6-for-7 shooting. He also added two blocks in 28 minutes of action.

NKU’s Carson Williams

Williams also gave a virtuoso performance, going 9-for-10 from the field with several eye-popping inside moves. The 6-foot-6 sophomore began the second half with a close-in basket to extend the NKU lead to 39-29, and seconds later he stole an errant EKU pass and finished off the breakaway with a resounding dunk to give the Norse a 41-29 edge. It was part of a 10-1 run to open the second half that extended the NKU lead to 47-30.

At that point it was over, and NKU turned the John L. Griffin Court into a series of alley-oop dunks, fast-break layups and precision passing the remainder of the game. The Norse led by as many as 32 points and cruised to the win in front of a vocal crowd of 3,622.

“The crowd was awesome, and we had some really special guests with our basketball alumni,” Brannen said, noting members of NKU’s 1996 and ’97 NCAA Division II national runner-up teams were honored. “In my opinion, we had the greatest coach in school history here in Ken Shields. To have them here tonight and be a part of the history they built is very humbling. Just a great night, and our guys played very well against a good team.”

Lavone Holland II and Walton each finished with 10 points for NKU, which shot 60 percent from the field and won the rebounding battle by a 39-24 margin. Holland II also dished out four assists and threw down a nasty alley-oop dunk off an assist from Mason Faulkner in transition during the second half.

Faulkner added seven points and six assists, while Garrett scored six points and grabbed six rebounds.

“We continue to get very good production from our bench,” Brannen said. “Garrett and Walton gave us great energy, defended well and rebounded the ball.”

Jackson Davis led EKU (4-6) with 13 points. Asante Gist tossed in 12 points for the Colonels, who shot 45.5 percent from the field.

NKU had not played EKU since Dec. 2, 1992, when the Colonels posted an 81-71 victory against the Norse in Richmond. EKU still owns a 5-3 lead in the all-time series, which will continue next season in Richmond.

NKU takes off for final exams this week and returns to action Dec. 17 with a road game at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com

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