Two days earlier, the 25-6 Ramblers had topped Drake in “Arch Madness” – the title game of Missouri Valley Conference in St. Louis – to make the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row and the third time in five years.
Now Wright State had come from 16 points down midway through the second half to edge Northern Kentucky, 72-71, and make the tournament for the second time in five years.
“It’s a dream come true,” Braden, back in Chicago, said after Loyola’s practice the other day. “This means so much to our family to have the two of us in The Big Dance in the same year.”
His dad, Brett Norris, the head coach at Hilliard Bradley High School and someone with quite a basketball resume himself, agreed:
“When I say basketball is an integral part of our whole family’s lives, it’s not an exaggeration. It’s at the heart of everything we do. We really are a basketball family.”
»It began with Brett’s late father, Dan Norris, who was a Hall of Fame athlete at Arcanum, then was a starting forward on the Kent State basketball team and a starting pitcher for the Golden Flashes baseball team.
He became a high school hoops coach – most notably at Preble Shawnee and Versailles in the Miami Valley – before becoming a school administrator at Convoy Crestview.
»Brett – who said he grew up a Dayton Flyers fan, as was his dad – played high school, basketball at Versailles and Crestview and then became the all-time career scorer (2,280 points) at the University of St. Francis, an NAIA school in Fort Wayne.
Following his dad’s footsteps, he coached Delphos St. John’s to a state title in 2002 and then led Hilliard Darby before moving to Hilliard Bradley.
»Brett’s wife Carrie was a college player of note, as well, at St. Francis.
“She could definitely hoop a little bit,” Keaton said
“That’s where me and Keaton get our shooting from,” Braden added.
»The boys learned well. Playing for his dad at Bradley, Braden became the school’s all-time scoring leader and won all-state honors. Even so, he had limited scholarship offers because he was just 6-feet. He chose Oakland and was an instant success. He was named to the Horizon League All Freshman Team, but the next year he transferred to Loyola and has been the starting point guard there the past two seasons.
»By the time Keaton was coming up, he said the die was cast: “I was destined to play basketball because of what my family had done before me.”
After a standout career at Bradley, he came to Wright State and has contributed off the bench, especially in the Horizon League semifinal against Cleveland State, when he managed a four-point play that quelled a Vikings’ comeback surge and finished with a career-high 10 points.
»Still waiting to make their splashes are the family’s two youngest boys, Cade, who was a sophomore on the Bradley team this season, and Kypton, who is a sixth grader and has shown promise.
“For all of us, basketball has been a part of our lives since we were born,” Braden said. “It just means so much to our family.”
Loyola coach Drew Valentine knew that and that’s why he prompted Braden to go to Indianapolis last Tuesday night.
“On the morning of the championship game, I woke up to a text from him,” Braden said. “He told me, ‘You should go. You don’t want to miss that!’
“I hadn’t planned on going, but he made it clear: ‘Some things only happen once in a lifetime!’
“It was cool to get that kind of support from my coach and teammates and I’m glad I went. It was unbelievable to see,
“I just told someone else, it felt better in a way than winning (a berth) here at Loyola because I had no control over Wright State winning. I was in the stands watching and I was just so nervous.
“Seeing Keaton up there on the stage is something I’ll never forget.”
‘Every basketball player’s dream’
“Basketball has been in my life since I was born,” Braden said. “My dad has always been a coach, so I’ve been in the gym since I could dribble a basketball.”
He and Keaton both have stories of being at their dad’s practices and games when they were little boys, of going scouting with him and getting to ride the team bus and sit on the bench and especially remembering a few rules:
No. 1 was no dribbling when Dad was talking to his players
Keaton said the varsity players were his heroes: “One day I wanted to be a varsity player, too.”
While Braden was a standout in high school, he was overlooked by most Division I programs.
“I only had five offers,” he said. “Everybody looked at my size and I’m not the most athletic guy on the floor, that’s for sure. You don’t see me dunking in warm-ups or games.
“But a lot of people look past the important stuff like winning and toughness and IQ.”
Keaton said his brother “just needed one school to believe in him.”
Oakland did and as a freshman, he started 30 of 33 games, shot 48.6 percent from the three-point range and led the Horizon League (and was 22nd nationally) in is assists-to-turnovers ratio.
Although he had a stellar year, he said he was looking for a better fit and this time more schools took an interest in him.
Whether it was the iconic Sister Jean’s praying or then head coach Porter Moser’s reputation, he chose Loyola, which had become the NCAA Tournament darling in 2018 when it advanced to the Final Four.
The Ramblers are headed to the Atlantic 10 next season and that will give the conference a formidable hoops program. Last season Loyola advanced to the Sweet 16 and though the tournament was played in a semi-bubble around Indianapolis because of the COVID pandemic, the Norris family was there to root Braden on.
That was the first time Keaton had been to an NCAA Tournament game and the images were indelible. He watched Braden play at storied Hinkle Fieldhouse and then Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers. He saw the Ramblers upset Illinois and watched his brother on ESPN and all over social media and he said he was hooked:
“I remember talking to my family, saying, ‘That could be me next year!’
“And now for that to happen, it’s an unbelievable feeling. This is every basketball player’s dream.”
‘March is the best time of the year’
“For our whole family, March is the best time of year,” Keaton said. “And March Madness is just such a great event. To me, it’s the best sporting event there is.”
He said every year he’d watch as many games on television as he could and Braden talked about filling our brackets and following certain teams.
Keaton said the prospect of playing basketball in March is one of the reasons he came to Wright State:
“Their culture really stood out to me and they were winning. I wanted a program where I’d get a chance to play in March Madness and I think Wright State’s already proved I made the right choice. I really feel like we have an opportunity every year because of the talent and the culture we have.”
Keaton admitted college basketball, at times, has been a tough adjustment for him. He joined a team with four veteran starters, all of them with the ability to score, and sometimes he’s acquiesced to them.
There were times he been reluctant to shoot – Raiders coach Scott Nagy was upset with him when he first got in against Cleveland State and passed up a shot – but he did make strides in the game with the Vikings and ended up making three of his four three-point shots.
The family saw all three of his tournament games – the quarterfinal at the Nutter Center and the last two games in Indianapolis – and in between they watched all three of Braden’s games in St Louis.
“For six days in a row, the four of us – my wife and I and our two youngest – were on a journey like no other,” Brett said. “We left home on Thursday for Wright State’s game and ended up watching every tournament game the two boys played.
“And then to have Braden there on Tuesday night just capped it off.”
While they’re both headed to the NCAA Tournament, Braden said he hopes Wright State and Loyola don’t wind up in the same bracket: “I’m glad we both get to experience this, but I’ll be honest, I hope we don’t come anywhere close to each other. I don’t want to face him and have a chance to knock him out of his dream and I don’t want it to be the other way around either. I just hope we keep it separate and enjoy the whole tournament. “
Wright State and Loyola will find out who they’ll be playing tonight when the NCAA Tournament selection committee announces the bracket.
Back in Hilliard, Brett said their family, his team and others connected to their basketball program will hold a watch party at a neighborhood restaurant. With Braden and Keaton and another Bradley player at Ivy League power Princeton, they have plenty to anticipate.
“I can’t tell you how surreal this is,’ Brett said. “The college game has become size and length and athleticism and because of it players like Braden and Keaton often get overlooked. In both cases, perhaps, they were under-recruited because of that.
“And that’s when the dream, sometimes, seems unobtainable because they’re such outliers at this level.
“So for this to happen in year one with Braden was amazing. And now for it to happen again for both boys – and we were there to watch it all unfold – has been hard to comprehend. It’s hard to put into words really.”
Keaton, though, took a shot at it and he was on the mark once again.
He said basketball is about more than just size and length.
Sometimes, it’s about heart…and destiny.