Kentucky Wildcats Hold Off Upset-Minded NKU Norse

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It is rare to see a 15-seeded team give a 2-seeded program a real run in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but NKU did just that as the Norse pushed the blue bloods of UK basketball to the brink in an epic showdown of David vs. Goliath in Indianapolis. The Wildcats would eventually come out on top, 79-70, but not before the Norse made John Calipari's squad and their fans sweat.

A dream season for Northern Kentucky, which included a Horizon League Championship and a trip to the Big Dance, came to an end with a final record of 24-11. NKU players and fans have a lot to hang their hats on, including being only the seventh team to reach the NCAA Tournament in its first year eligible.

Kentucky took control early, but NKU took the lead when Cole Murray drained a three to give his team a 7-6 lead over UK, two minutes into the game. The Wildcats were quick to jump back ahead and would extend their advantage to eight- over the Norse, but an emphatic dunk from Holland spurred a 9-0 run that would bring NKU within two points, trailing 23-21 with 6:51 on the clock.

That's when the Wildcats retaliated with a 13-0 run, holding the Norse scoreless for more than four and a half minutes before Jordan Garnett connected from beyond the arc. Kentucky would lead by a 38-24 margin at the half.

The second half would see NKU outscore Kentucky 46-41, thanks in part, to a 17-point effort from Williams while Holland continued to shine with 14 points in the stanza.

"We knew we had a tremendous challenge on our hands, said NKU head coach John Brannen. "I talked to our guys about whenever you're in a first round tournament game, whether it be an NCAA tournament game or conference tournament game, your intensity and how hard you play will be more impactful than if you advance."

UK jumped out to its largest lead of the game, holding an 18-point edge over the Norse at 44-26. Williams had eight-straight points for NKU to bring NKU back within 12 points, 47-35.

Back-to-back 3-pointers from Murray and McDonald boosted NKU's confidence in the closing minutes of the game. McDonald brought it within 10 points with a low-post jumper and followed it up with a defensive board that opened up Holland for a fastbreak jumper with two minutes remaining to close the Kentucky lead to single digits for the first time since the 4:47 mark in the first half. The Norse made six of their final eight shot attempts and stayed within a 10-point margin to close out their final game of the season.

Northern Kentucky now heads back to Highland Heights with a Division-I conference title, a strong showing in the NCAA Tournament and a solid foundation to build on as head coach John Brannen prepares his program for the 2017-18 season.

Calipari's Kentucky squad must now face a Wichita State program that despite being given a No. 10 seed in the tournament, is ranked No. 5 overall in the Kenpom basketball rankings. The Wildcats will have their work cut out for them against the Shockers.

Portions of the content in this article may contain materials provided courtesy of the Northern Kentucky athletic department.