The Stetson men's basketball team (8-10, 5-2) used a second half surge to defeat Northern Kentucky (4-10, 2-4) in its first ever meeting with the Norse on Thursday night. The 71-59 victory was the Hatters' fourth straight and moved Stetson into sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
The four wins in a row - Jacksonville, ETSU, USC Upstate, and now Northern Kentucky - marks the longest win-streak for Stetson since the 2007-08 season. That campaign also marked the last time the Hatters got out to a 5-2 start in A-Sun play. After Florida Gulf Coast's overtime loss to Lipscomb on Thursday, and Jacksonville sitting idle, Stetson is alone in first place in the league standings and has won six of its last nine contests dating back to Chris Perez's buzzer beater at Florida Atlantic on Dec. 6.
"It's no grand scheme, or real significant changes, I think it's just doing a lot of things a little bit better," Stetson head coach Casey Alexander said of the team's recent success. "When you do that, you put yourself in position to win, and we've been fortunate enough to win some close games. When you win close games confidence builds, and you just kind of try to ride the momentum, and right now that's working."
The victory over the Norse at the Edmunds Center on Thursday didn't come easily. In fact, the Hatters were down by four points at halftime, and as many as eight points with 2:30 to play in the first period.
After a 7-0 run midway through the first half put Stetson up 16-12 with 9:43 remaining, NKU outscored the Hatters 17-5 over the next seven minutes to extend its lead to 29-21 on a tip-in by Anthony Monaco. Back-to-back three-pointers by junior Aaron Graham and senior Joel Naburgs cut the deficit to two points, but a layup by the Norse's Chad Jackson made it 31-27 in favor of NKU at the break.
"I thought we were a little bit too timid on both ends," Alexander said of Stetson's play in the first half. "Not in a fearful way. They guarded us a little bit differently, and so we didn't really play with a lot of purpose on offense, and then defensively because they spread you out and they make you stand around a lot, we just weren't really aggressive."
Things changed in the second half after a running hook by John Staley put NKU up by six points to open the frame. A three-pointer by junior Hunter Miller ignited a 9-0 run that gave Stetson its first lead since 16-15 at the 9:16 mark in the first half.
A fading jumper by Naburgs, and two straight baskets from junior Chris Perez, put Stetson up 36-33 with 17:05 remaining in the second half. The Hatter offensive didn't end there, although it was the improved defense that led to much of the team's scoring.
Stetson forced four NKU turnovers in the first 5:25 of the second half, which turned into nine Hatter points and extended their run to 14-2 and gave them a 41-35 lead with 14:35 remaining in the game.
"It helps give you a little life," Alexander said of the points off of turnovers. "When you're having to work so hard for baskets, and all of the sudden you get an easy one or two, it just kind of picks you up naturally. The best part of that is the 10 steals. That's like a world record for our team."
The 10 steals didn't set any kind of world record, but they did tie a season-best for the Hatters, who also scored 26 points off of turnovers in the contest.
Stetson led by as many as 15 points when an 18-7 stretch late in the second half put the Hatters up 65-50 on a steal and layup by Miller with 1:48 to play. The Norse got as close as eight points before Stetson went on to the 71-59 victory.
"I don't think anybody who watched that would say that it was a thing of beauty, but you see everything throughout the course of a season so whether it's pretty or not, it's better to be on this end of it," Alexander said. "I'm glad we found a way to settle down a little bit in the second half, play better, and end up winning without a lot of concern down the stretch."
Naburgs and Perez both finished with 17 points to lead the Hatters. The former tied a career best with a game high eight assists. Senior Adam Pegg and Graham added 13 points each in the victory. For Pegg it marked the 13th straight game in double figures.
NKU was led by Jackson with 15 points and eight rebounds. Faulkner added 12 points and five assists in the defeat.
Stetson will next host Lipscomb on Saturday, Jan. 19 at 3:15 p.m. on ESPN3. The Bisons defeated FGCU in overtime on Thursday night for their second conference win of the season. The game will be featured on ESPN3 and WatchESPN, as well as WSBB 1230 AM, 1490 AM, and www.MyAM1230.com.