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Northern Kentucky wins 2017 Horizon League basketball tournament: Norse go dancing in first year of eligibility

Milwaukee’s Cinderella run in the Horizon League tournament ended with a title game loss to postseason newbie Northern Kentucky.

NCAA Basketball: Horizon League Conference Tournament-Milwaukee vs Northern Kentucky Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After 112 seasons of competition, the Northwestern basketball program is primed to make its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. Northern Kentucky fans will never know that level of patience.

In their first year of postseason eligibility, the Norse took down Milwaukee 59-53 in the Horizon League tournament championship game to punch a ticket to the big dance. The win capped a wild tournament in which both top-seeded Oakland and second-seeded Valparaiso were eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Junior guard Lavone Holland II led the way for fourth-seeded Northern Kentucky, scoring 20 points to go along with six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Sophomore forward Drew McDonald chipped in 14 points.

The NKU basketball program, which was started in 1971, spent its first 40 seasons of existence as a member of Division-II. Over that time, they appeared in the D-II NCAA tournament 13 times, losing in the national championship game in both 1996 and 1997. The Norse transitioned to Division-I in 2012, spending their first three seasons as a member of the Atlantic Sun before accepting an invitation to the Horizon League. They became eligible for postseason play in all sports before the start of the 2016-17 season.

Just seven teams prior to NKU had earned a trip to the big dance in their first year of postseason eligibility.

Though the program experienced a great deal of success this season, the transition to D-I wasn’t always smooth for the Norse. This was the program’s first season with a winning record since making the move, and its first with fewer than 16 losses.

Milwaukee was looking to make a bit of unpredictable history itself Tuesday night.

Before this year, no team seeded 10th had ever won a single game in the Horizon League tournament. Milwaukee changed all that by knocking off seventh-seeded Detroit, second-seeded Valparaiso and sixth-seeded UIC to reach the championship game. Had the 11-24 Panthers, who went 4-14 in the Horizon League during the regular season, defeated Northern Kentucky, they would have been the first NCAA tournament participant ever with 20 or more losses.

After beginning conference play with just a 3-4 record, Northern Kentucky will head into the NCAA tournament as winners of 10 of their last 11 games.