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Miami drops 40-minute battle to Northern Kentucky

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- A little blood appears in most every war, so it was no surprise to have claret spilling onto the floor during the Miami RedHawks' (6-5) battle with Northern Kentucky (9-3) on Sunday night.

With seven minutes left in the game and the Norse leading 55-53, NKU redshirt freshman guard Paul Djoko faced stiff interior defense on a layup attempt. Sophomore guard Nike Sibande blocked Djoko's shot and sent the Norse guard jogging down the court, holding his hand to his bloody nose.

Miami tied the score at 55 a few plays later, before Northern Kentucky went on a 7-0 run to solidify an advantage the RedHawks couldn't match. The Norse held the lead for the remainder of the contest to win 72-66 at the BB&T Arena.

"It was a battle," MU head coach Jack Owens said. "That's what was going on. You're talking about a one-possession game the entire time."

Sibande scored a team-high 13 points, but shot 3-of-9 from the field and 0-of-5 from behind the 3-point arc.

His percentages followed his team's overall trend. Miami converted on only 39.2 percent of its shots from the field and 24 percent of its 3-pointers.

"I feel like we just weren't executing or hitting the shots we feel like we should make," Sibande said.

Despite their struggles from the field, the RedHawks torched Northern Kentucky with a red-hot performance at the charity stripe. They finished 20-for-22 on free throws -- a statistic that kept them afloat and competitive with the Norse for much of the game.

After his team put up subpar free-throw numbers Dec. 8 against Purdue Fort Wayne, Owens made foul shots a point of emphasis in practice this week.

"We're definitely more comfortable [at the free-throw line]," Sibande said. "The more reps you get, the more comfortable you are."

Miami kicked off the game with a 4-0 run, but the Norse quickly answered with a 5-0 stretch of their own, effectively setting the pace for a game that featured 13 lead changes and nine ties.

The RedHawks were the first to gain a small amount of separation, using a 9-2 run to push them ahead 17-10 eight minutes into the first half. That was their biggest lead of the game.

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Northern Kentucky knotted the score at 22 and jumped ahead 25-24 with under six minutes left in the period.

Spurred by the aggressive play of redshirt senior guard Abdoulaye Harouna, who took five first-half shots and took a pair of trips to the foul line, Miami led 34-33 at halftime.

Harouna had a team-high eight points and three rebounds at the break.

Thirty seconds into the second half, a layup from junior guard Tyler Sharpe put the Norse back on top 35-34. They stayed ahead for the next 10 minutes before Miami knotted the game at 48 on a layup by redshirt senior forward Aleks Abrams.

The score stayed close until Northern Kentucky's debilitating 7-2 run following Djoko's bloody nose.

From there, graduate transfer guard Zaynah Robinson decided he wasn't going to let the RedHawks back into the game.

He personally outscored Miami 7-3 for a 90-second period, boosting his team's lead from 57-55 to 64-58.

The Norse downed their crunch-time free throws to clinch a 72-66 victory.

It snapped their two-game losing streak and Miami's three-game win streak.

"At the end of the day, we just had to do a better job finishing this game off and executing offensively and defensively," Owens said.

The game capped an eight-day gameless period for the RedHawks, who took time off for the academic semester's final exams. Owens doesn't think the layoff played a part in them failing their final test of the week.

"It's finals," Owens said. "It is what it is, but every team in the country has finals. [NKU] had finals. We just had to do our jobs and finish the game."

Aside from Sibande's 13 points, two other RedHawks joined him in double figures. Sophomore forward Dalonte Brown tallied 12 points while Harouna finished with 10.

Robinson, Miami's second-half kryptonite, recorded 19 points -- two shy of senior forward Drew McDonald's game-high 21. McDonald also grabbed 10 rebounds to complete the contest's only double-double.

The RedHawks return home Thursday to take on South Carolina State (2-11) at Millett Hall. The game is scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN+.