“I was like, ‘Aaaah…I don’t know.’ I was star-struck. I had nothing to say, so I just ran down to the other end of the court.”
Thursday night had Cleveland State’s point guard Tyree Appleby – who is the fifth-leading scorer in the Horizon League, a guy who dropped 26 on IUPUI five days earlier, scored 24 on Green Bay nine days before that and earlier this season lit up Bowling Green for 37, Milwaukee for 33, had 28 against Kent State and 27 in another Green Bay game – had asked that same question, Hughes, now a senior, would have had an answer.
Something like: “I’m the guy who’s going to shut you down tonight.”
No deer in the headlights look this time. There was a glint in Hughes’ eyes:
“Him being their leading scorer is the reason they go. But I’m the best defender on our team and I take the assignment of guarding the best wing every game.
“He’s a smaller guard, so me being bigger and stronger, I figured I could really bother him with my size and length.”
And that’s just what happened.
Appleby scored just one basket on Hughes – a jump shot right before the end of the first half – all night. While he finished with 11 points – more than six below his average – his two other field goals came when Hughes was out of the game. And his four free throws came when other Raiders fouled him.
He made just 3 of 11 shots and was 1 for 5 from three-point range.
Hughes blocked two of his three-point attempts, deflected two of his passes and forced him into several of his game-high 6 turnovers.
With Hughes leading the defensive effort and five Raiders – paced by Bill Wampler’s 16 points and Parker Ernsthausen’s, 14 – scoring in double figures, Wright State pushed aside Cleveland State, 87-61.
WSU’s record is now 17-11 and 11-4 in the Horizon League with three conference games left.
Going into Saturday afternoon’s final home game of the regular season – Senior Day – Hughes has now played in 122 games and started 83.
“He’s just a very experienced guy defensively,” WSU coach Scott Nagy. “Of all the things we’re going to miss about him when he leaves, that will be No. 1, for sure.”
Defense is his basketball ticket
Hughes learned his very first year at Ursuline High School in Youngstown that defense was his basketball ticket.
“My freshman year I came in at 5-10 and maybe 120 pounds,” the now 6-foot-4 Hughes said with a grin. “My (varsity) coach, Keith Gunther said, ‘If you want to get on the floor, if you want to go on to the next level, you’ve got to be able to guard somebody. You’ve got to be able to play defense.’”
He won Division III All-Ohio first team honors at Ursuline and came to Wright State where then-head coach Billy Donlon intensified the “play defense” manta.
“Coach Donlon was all about defense,” Hughes said. “When I first got here, he told me I didn’t have to score a single point. As long as I guarded guys and rebounded, I’d always be on the floor.”
Thursday night, Nagy, who took over for Donlon three seasons ago, preached a similar gospel:
“I know Mark was a little frustrated offensively tonight. He came over to the bench in the second half and I could see it in his body language.
“I said, ‘Mark, who cares?’
“Offense is just so important to these kids. I get that because that’s how they get all the attention. But I thought he did a great job defensively. And that’s what we needed him to do tonight. That’s what was best for our team.”
Best defender in the league?
Hughes was named to the Horizon League’s All-Defensive Team last season and several times during that campaign, Nagy said he thought he was the best defender in the league.
He picked up that theme again Thursday night.
“No. 1, he’s 6-4,” Nagy said. “And he has great anticipation. He does a good job not fouling. He gets his body away from people. A lot of times when guys put the ball on the floor (the defender) gets up and puts his hand on them and bumps them. Mark doesn’t do that. He keeps his hands out of there.”
Hughes explained: “Defense is something I embrace. I really like seeing the other team’s best guard shut down, just because of the impact it has on the other team. When they see their best player not getting anything, it really kills their life.“
Over his WSU career, he’s done that often.
Last season – during the Raiders three-games-in-three-days Thanksgiving tournament at the Nutter Center – he set his sights on Fairfield’s Tyler Nelson in the final game. The Stags point guard had scored 28 on Jacksonville in the opener and 26 the next game against Gardner Webb.
Nelson made just 3 of 11 shots against WSU, missed all three of his three point attempts and turned the ball over seven times. The Raiders won 57-56.
“I was so all over him he had to get subbed out and he never came back in,” Hughes remembered.
He did the same thing last season against Green Bay’s 1,300-point scorer Khalil Small, who came into the Nutter Center game averaging 17.8 points and ended up going 4 for 14 for 11 points, half of which came when Hughes was on the bench.
Of course on rare occasions the script is flipped.
Detroit’s Antoine Davis made 15 of 24 field goal attempts against the Raiders – including 10 of 15 from behind the arc – to finish with 48 points in the Titans’ upset of WSU in January.
“We did what we were supposed to, but he just stepped back and made tough shots,” Hughes said. “Tough offense is always better than tough defense.
“But defense is my M.O. and I ‘m never going to change. It’s what works for me.”
That said, Hughes – who finished with nine points against Cleveland State – got his biggest cheers of the night when he hit the first of two straight three pointers with 3:52 left.
The first trey put WSU up 77-57 and Rapid Fire Pizza had promised if the Raiders topped 75 points, students would get coupons for free pizza.
“I got to hit those shots at the end and it was really fun,” Hughes laughed. “I got the fans some free pizza, so it worked out well.”
Like he said: “Tough offense is always better than tough defense.”
At least on this night that’s how the WSU students saw it.