But to make the NCAA Tournament, the Raiders – even though they had won the league’s regular-season title and only nine schools of the 353 playing Division I basketball this season had won more games during the regular season – had to win the tournament of their under-valued conference.
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Instead they were blown out by a team they’d beaten by 17 points three weeks earlier.
WSU shot just 28.3 percent from the floor, making 17 of 60 field goal attempts, hit 25 percent from three-point range and was a woeful 15 of 29 (51.7 percent) at the free throw line.
The Raiders were out rebounded 47-33 and their defense was especially porous in the paint.
They never led all night and with just over seven minutes left they trailed by 27.
As the team tromped numbly off the court afterward, some of the most shell-shocked were the seniors, especially Wampler.
He had begun his career at Drake University and was a budding star there, but decided to transfer after two straight 7-24 seasons and what he figured was no prospect of ever making an NCAA Tournament, something he said he had dreamed about since he started playing high school basketball in Wisconsin.
He chose Wright State, where Nagy had just taken over the program the year before, because prior to that the coach had taken three of his last five teams at South Dakota State to the NCAA Tournament.
“I came to Wright State because I figured there’s be a good chance to get in the NCAA Tournament,” he said on his way to the team bus.
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The Raiders had gone his first season at WSU, but he had been forced to sit out to meet NCAA transfer rules.
“I got to experience it that first year, but I didn’t get to play in it. That’s what I really wanted.”
His voice trailed off and then he added: “A lot of good players don’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament….but it’s still tough right now. All of it hasn’t hit me yet. The game’s just over and everything is pretty raw.”
Aleksandar Dozic, a 6-foot-9 grad student transfer this season, who had played one season at Marshall and two at Marist, had transferred to Wright State for the same reason.
Although a back injury sidelined him for the season, he was a fixture on the bench and his preseason expectations underscored the hurt the Raiders’ older players now were feeling:
“It’s my fifth year. My last year. I wanted to come somewhere where we had a chance to get in the NCAA Tournament. That’s why I came to Wright State. The team is stacked this year. My whole career, the goal for me was to wear a ring and get to March Madness and I think I can achieve that here.”
And going into Monday’s game it certainly seemed like that was a possibility. The Raiders had gotten a bye into the semifinals and had to win just two games for the dream to happen for just the fourth time in 33 years of Division I basketball at the school.
They were fifth in the nation in scoring offense (81.4 points per game) and had dominated the league’s postseason awards. Five players had received All Horizon League honors, including 6-foot-8 junior post player Loudon Love being named the conference’s player of the year.
Nagy was voted the league’s coach of the year for the third season in a row.
“We knew they had a lot of awards, but we had a lot of confidence,” said UIC senor Godwin Boahen, who finished with 10 rebounds and nine points. “In our minds we believed all the awards should be for players on our team.”
Instead just two players from UIC — which came into the game 17-16 — had been honored.
“The fact is we played with a chip on our shoulder,” he said. “We don’t think anybody believes we should be here. We wanted to prove we should.”
Actually, WSU’s Feb. 14 victory over the Flames at the Nutter Center was a bit misleading. UIC had beaten them a month earlier in Chicago and had won both games last season.
After Monday’s game Nagy refused to blame his team’s anemic play on the fact it had played just one game — a victory at Northern Kentucky in the regular season finale — in the past 15 days. Over that same span UIC had played four times.
Instead, he said the Raiders had trouble with the Flames because they were “long and athletic” and they play “the best defense in the league.”
UIC coach Steve McClain, who did a masterful job Monday night, praised WSU afterward and admitted: “When it gets to tournament time, it’s about one bad day.
“If (Wright State) plays in the NCAA Tournament, they win a game. When you get there, other teams don’t know about you… We knew everything about them.”
It certainly seemed that way.
UIC stymied the Raiders’ roster from top to bottom.
Wampler needed 18 shots and a free throw for his team-high 14 points. Love finished with just six points. Freshman guard Tanner Holden went 1 for 5 from the floor and ended with four points. Senior point guard Cole Gentry was 1 for 7 shooting and had five points. Freshman Trey Calvin missed six of his eight shots.
Because they won the regular season title, the Raiders are assured a berth in the NIT, though the prospect wasn’t lifting anyone’s spirits after the game.
“Right now that’s not what they want to do,” Nagy said. ”They didn’t come into the night with this in their hip pocket – that if we don’t go to the NCAA, we’ve got the NIT.
“I guarantee it disappoints everybody to play in the NIT. Nobody wants to be in that. But for our program to be in the NIT and be disappointed means that we’re in the right spot.
“We’ve got a pretty veteran group and they’ve done a lot to lift Wright State. When we took the program over, I wouldn’t say it was completely falling apart, but I think in four years we have kind of taken it to another level. The expectations are very high and when they are you set yourself up for more disappointment, too.
“But I just got done watching Ryan Custer roll his wheelchair out of the dressing room and I think that’s a lot harder to deal with. I think we have to have some perspective, too. We’ve had an incredible year.
“The sun is gonna come up tomorrow and we’ll get our guys ready. Number one, I’ve got to get over it so I can help our guys get over it.”
And that would not be an easy task because WSU had not done what the underdog Flames did so well on this night.
McClain had talked about that moments earlier:
“You’ve got to be willing to leave it all out there and if it happens it happens. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. The one thing is to have no regrets. When it’s over – when you walk in the locker room – you want no regrets.”
UIC had none.
They have a few.