By Joey Yashinsky
STARS OF THE NIGHT
DREW MCDONALD (NORTHERN KENTUCKY)
The 1st-team All-Horizon player, Drew McDonald, was not himself in Northern Kentucky’s opener. He forced up tough fadeaways and didn’t have his usual touch from beyond the arc. There were no such issues on Monday night. McDonald came out sizzling against Youngstown State and never cooled off. He exploded for 26 points and nine rebounds; he buried four from long range; and maybe most importantly of all, he turned Jorden Kaufman - the darling of the first two rounds of the tournament - into a non-factor. Kaufman benefits from playing against traditional post players. Trying to chase the 6’7” McDonald all over the court was simply too much to ask of Kaufman, especially after he’d logged 69 minutes over the previous two contests. McDonald said after the game that he would probably have trouble falling asleep, considering playing in an NCAA Tournament has always been his lifelong dream. He and his fellow Norse brethren are now 40 minutes from making that a reality.
LAVONE HOLLAND II (NORTHERN KENTUCKY)
Lavone Holland II is playing the best ball of his season at a time Northern Kentucky needs it most. The hot-blooded junior point guard came up huge for the second consecutive night, torching Youngstown State for 20 points and draining several big shots down the stretch. He connected on all three of his triple tries. Holland has been a major weapon for the Norse all tournament when they find the shot clock ticking down. He’s able to use his quickness and strength to beat just about any defender off the dribble and get all the way to the rim. When both Drew McDonald and Lavone Holland II are operating at full capacity, as they were in the Horizon League semifinals, Northern Kentucky becomes a very, very difficult team to beat.
FRANCISCO SANTIAGO (YOUNGSTOWN STATE)
The game could have lasted 80 minutes instead of 40 and you still wouldn’t have been able to peel Francisco Santiago off the court for a short breather. The fiery junior guard for the Penguins gave everything his 160-pound frame had to offer. While Youngstown State is typically the Cameron Morse (and everyone else) Show, Monday’s second half belonged to Santiago. He sped past the entire NKU defense on multiple occasions, bringing the vocal Penguins’ faithful to its feet. It was a sterling 15 point, nine rebound, seven assist effort from Santiago. He did miss a key lefty layup in the last few minutes, one of his few miscues on the night. Similar to Charles Cooper’s never-say-die effort for Green Bay on Sunday, Santiago exemplified in this game what it means to be a collegiate athlete: heart and determination galore, not to mention what is probably the slickest handle in the Horizon League. He and Morse, both soon-to-be seniors, will cause nightmares for opposing backcourts next winter.
AUGUST HAAS (MILWAUKEE)
The point guard from Denmark is listed in the program as a freshman. In Monday’s pulse-pounding semifinal, he played like a 5th-year senior. Haas commanded the Milwaukee offensive attack for 25 minutes without committing a single turnover. He also knocked home the biggest shot of Milwaukee’s season. With the score tied at 63, the ball found its way to Haas with the shot clock melting away. This isn’t his forte -- he hadn’t made a 3 in either of the Panthers first two tournament games. But the freshman went up confidently, and with a sweet southpaw release, lifted the long shot kids from Milwaukee to the Horizon League championship game.
BROCK STULL (MILWAUKEE)
Ho hum, just another double-double for the terminally underrated Stull. Playing with the confidence of an All-Horizon player (an honor Stull arguably deserved), the sophomore posted 17 points, 10 boards, and was perfect both from 3 (3-3) and the foul line (2-2). He also came up with a super-clutch drive to put Milwaukee up five with 90 seconds to play, then fed Brett Prahl for another monster basket a minute later. This upstart Milwaukee squad gets contributions from a variety of sources, but it’s the unshakeable Stull that is there sprinkling magic dust on the box score every single night.
BRETT PRAHL (MILWAUKEE)
Entering Monday’s semifinal, you need not be a hoops genius to know that Milwaukee was going to have their hands full trying to deal with Tai Odiase. The ultra-athletic UIC forward had just put a hurting on Green Bay and would be looking to double down against the undersized Milwaukee Panthers. The onus would fall on Brett Prahl to somehow try and neutralize Odiase: he did a lot more than that. Prahl, in his typical unassuming style, sank 7-of-8 shots and outscored the Flames’ star, 15 to 5. In order to play four guards/wings at one time - a tactic Milwaukee coach LaVall Jordan relies upon heavily - you need an interior guy willing to do a whole bunch of dirty work. The “Prahl Driver” has owned that role for every minute of Motor City Madness.