INDIANAPOLIS — Jalen Tate tied one piece of the net to his championship hat Tuesday and hung the rest around his neck after earning another NCAA Tournament bid.
They will be the newest additions to the family’s trophy case — and he hopes not the last.
On Tuesday, Tate scored all of his 14 points in the first half, spent the second half doing the dirty work on defense while leading Northern Kentucky past UIC 71-62 for its second straight Horizon League Tournament title.
“It feels good to be back in the (NCAA) tournament, man, and with these guys it feels great,” he told the crowd moments after being named the tourney MVP. “And we’re not done, either.”
Northern Kentucky (23-9) has now made the 68-team field for the third time in four years.
For Tate, this victory helps him pull even with his father, Jermaine, and his older brother, Jae’Sean, with two NCAA appearances each. His brother and father both played at Ohio State though his dad eventually transferred to Cincinnati.
Jalen Tate wound up picking the smaller school across the Ohio River, where he has thrived.
In fact, winning the MVP Award and this year’s conference defensive player of the year award might even give the redshirt junior family bragging rights.
“I don’t think I’ll get too far into it, looking back,” he said, referring to the family competition. “But getting beaten up, bloodied, upset when I couldn’t get my shot off at seven or eight or nine, really prepared me for this. I don’t back down from any challenge. It put the toughness in me that I have today.”
He made that perfectly clear in Indianapolis, with his father watching every move.
Yes, Tate needed help in the second half as he battled foul trouble and he got it from a reliable source — Tyler Sharpe, who scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half.
But when the second-seeded Norse needed a defensive stopper after UIC trimmed a 15-point deficit to 42-38 with 14:03 to play, Tate came through. He played a key role in forcing the Flames (18-17) to miss eight consecutive shots and commit three turnovers over the next seven minutes.
That gave Northern Kentucky just enough time to score 11 straight points and rebuild a 53-40 lead. Fourth-seeded UIC never recovered.
“It was a high level game and it was a night some of our shots didn’t go down,” coach Steve McClain said. “Give NKU credit they played a great game.”
Tarkus Ferguson led UIC with 15 points and Michael Diggins.
Now, as for Tate, he and his teammates have even bigger plans.
“Nobody expects us to get this far and not finish it out,” Tate said.
UIC: Despite posting a fourth straight season with at least 16 wins, the school’s longest run since the early 1990s, the Flames’ season likely ended Tuesday. Even with two, 30-plus point wins on the road, their resume probably isn’t strong enough to overcome the 17 losses to make the NIT field.
Northern Kentucky: The Norse have been the most dominant team in the Horizon League over the past three seasons. But even with 23 wins, Northern Kentucky will likely have to play its way out of a low seed to advance next week.
UIC: Lost in its first conference final appearance since 2004, which is also the last time it made the NCAA Tourney. … The Flames had 18 turnovers and were 3 of 15 on 3-pointers. … Ferguson, who scored a season-high 25 points in Monday’s semifinal victory over regular-season champion Wright State, also had seven rebounds and three assists. … Marcus Ottey had 12 points and six rebounds while Jordan Blount had 10 points and five rebounds.
Northern Kentucky: The Norse shot 50% from the field and were 6 of 21 on 3s against the Horizon League’s top defense in both categories. … Dantez Walton had 10 points and nine rebounds, becoming the 29th member of the school’s 1,000-point club. He now has 1,008 points. … Tate also had four rebounds and four assists before fouling out. … Trevon Faulkner scored 12 points.
THEY SAID IT
UIC: “It’s heartbreaking to not get over the hump,” Blount said. “All day we envisioned going to the tournament and cutting down the nets. It’s hard.”
Northern Kentucky: “I assume we’ll be a 15 (seed), which means you’ll get a two,” first-year coach Darrin Horn said after making the tourney for the first time since 2008. “But we’re not going to change anything for who we play. Hopefully, we’ll make them adjust to us.”