Mar. 9—There has been so much heartbreak for Oakland in the Horizon League men’s basketball tournament over the years, and so many blown late leads this season.
But not this time. Not this night.
And in a strange twist, the all-too-familiar was turned away by the totally unfamiliar, as perhaps the best 40-minute defensive effort head coach Greg Kampe has seen in his 37 years at Oakland led the No. 3 seed past No. 4 Northern Kentucky, 69-58, on Monday night in the semifinals at Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.
Oakland (12-17) plays top-seeded Cleveland State (18-7) in Monday’s championship game. It’s Oakland’s first trip to the Horizon League final, and its first conference final appearance since 2011, when it won the Summit League tournament. That was the Golden Grizzlies last trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve won a lot of very important, a lot of big basketball games, but I would tell you this: This is the first time in all those years of going to championships and tournaments that we’ve ever won a game because of our defense,” Kampe said late Monday night. “We played 40 minutes of just unbelievable defense.
“I was just ecstatic about us defensively.”
And if you know anything about college basketball coaches, they don’t get ecstatic about much — Kampe included, unless it’s Skyline Chili, or a morning 18 at Oakland Hills.
Oakland, shut down just before the start of the season with a major COVID-19 outbreak, was forced to install a zone defense for the start of the season because man-to-man was too tough to learn in a quick window, particularly for the new players.
Kampe liked so much of what he saw, he kept it. All year. It got them to the championship game, as Northern Kentucky (14-11) shot 33.3%, 23.3% on 3’s.
Freshman Micah Parrish did much of the heavy lifting on defense but had a whole lot of help, with Oakland giving Northern Kentucky so few good looks and had the Norse so flustered, on one cross-court pass, the ball was intercepted by the side of the rim.
The game plan was to keep Northern Kentucky outside, heaving up 3’s. It shot 30.
On offense, Oakland, for a change, wanted to work inside-out, taking advantage of a rare opportune it matched up well with size-wize. Oakland shot just 19 3’s, while Daniel Oladapo did whatever he wanted inside, with 19 points and nine rebounds. He mopped the floor, literally, at one point early in the second half cleaning up the court.
“Now they think I’m pretty smart,” Kampe said. “I’m not.”
Said Oladapo: “He knows what he’s doing.”
Rashad Williams had 17 points, with three 3’s in the first half, while Jalen Moore scored 14 with seven assists. Freshman Trey Townsend had 11 rebounds and nine points.
The Golden Grizzlies won despite going 10-for-26 from free-throw range. Townsend was 1-for-7 and Oladapo 1-for-6. Even Moore, a great free-throw shooter, was 4-for-8. So flustered, he actually told Kampe there was something wrong with the rim.
In any regular-season game, Kampe would’ve gone ballistic. He said as much.
“Dan could tell you, the timeouts, there would’ve been a lot of problems,” Kampe said. “But I can’t tell them to go onto the next play and not coach that way. In the postseason, you have to have a short memory, and you’ve gotta go onto the next play. Or you’re going to lose.”
And Kampe knows all about losing in the Horizon League tournament.
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During the tournament’s four-year run in Detroit, Oakland was upset by Wright State, then lost to Youngstown State on a last-second shot, then lost to No. 8 seed Cleveland State, then lost to Northern Kentucky on Drew McDonald’s buzzer beater in 2019. Oakland was the No. 2, 1, 4, and seeds, respectively, those four years. A reporter used the word “shortcomings” in Monday’s postgame Zoom, then seemed to regret it, until Kampe said, “You can say it. We deserve it.”
Even 24 years ago, to the day Monday, Oakland lost to Northern Kentucky in the Division II NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
“It wasn’t just Drew McDonald I was thinking about,” Kampe said.
Trevon Faulkner scored 26, but on 9-for-22 shooting, to lead the way for Northern Kentucky (14-11), which had won three of the last four Horizon League tournament championships. Bryson Langdon scored 14. Adrian Nelson, one of Northern Kentucky’s big inside threats, had 14 rebounds after missing a lengthy stretch in the first half with what appeared to be a rolled ankle, but scored just six points.
Oakland held Marques Warrick to eight points, on 3-for-15 shooting. Kampe said he wanted to shut down either Warrick or Faulkner, and it ended up being Warrick.
This was the first meeting between the teams this season. They were supposed to play two in December, but Northern Kentucky canceled for COVID-19 reasons and the games weren’t made up. Because the Norse run a similar zone, though, Kampe watched a lot of Northern Kentucky games on film, throughout the entire season.
It led to a good game plan — and, for once, no heartbreak.
“Brand-new team, brand-new defense,” Oladapo said. “We’re ready for it.”
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Horizon League men’s tournament
At Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Indianapolis
MONDAY — No. 1 Cleveland State 71, No. 8 Milwaukee 65 — No. 3 Oakland (11-17) vs. No. 4 Northern Kentucky (14-10), 9:30 (ESPN2)
TUESDAY — Championship, No. 1 Cleveland State (18-7) vs. No. 3 Oakland (12-17), 7 (ESPN)