When the door opened to the small passageway where Scott Nagy had stopped for the postmortems, the cheers from the Northern Kentucky fans out on the court and the sounds of “One Shining Moment” slipped into the room like a pair of out-of-place revelers.
When the door shut again, the music stopped, the crowd noise disappeared and Nagy was left to the silence again.
That’s the way it was for the Wright State coach and his team Tuesday night in Detroit after they were swept aside by a hot-shooting NKU team, 77-66, in the Horizon League championship game at Little Caesars Arena.
The Norse now were headed to the NCAA Tournament.
Wright State – which had hoped to make history in a couple of ways Tuesday – was denied.
There would be no back-to-back trips to college basketball’s premier tournament. Nor would the WSU men be joining the Raiders’ women – who were headed to the NCAA Tournament after out-battling Green Bay, 55-52, in the afternoon here — for what would have been the school’s first tournament twofer.
Now Nagy and his 21-13 team would head to the NIT, a destination that has plenty of merit in its own right, but at the moment was an invitation framed in players’ disappointment.
“It hurts right now,” Raiders point guard Cole Gentry said moments earlier. “We’ve got a good tournament still to play in, but that’s not what we wanted, not what we came here for. We came here to win.
“We’re going to have to get over the disappointment and regroup.”
Nagy shared some of those thoughts: “There’s a lot of pain and there should be. There’d be something wrong if there wasn’t.
“We do have a good tournament to go to, but one thing about the NIT: Everybody in it is a real good basketball team and none of them want to be in it. They all want to be in the NCAA Tournament. So the question is can you get past the disappointment? But at least we have a little more time to pull ourselves together.
“I’ve coached in it before and one of the best victories I ever had was in the NIT.”
He was talking about his 2015 team at South Dakota State and an 86-76 upset of top seed Colorado State.
And Nagy’s NIT sentiments likely would be echoed by former University of Dayton coach Brian Gregory, who took two Flyers teams to the NCAA Tournament, but certainly relishes UD’s run through the 2010 NIT, beating Cincinnati and Illinois at home and then heading to Madison Square Garden to topple Ole Miss and finally North Carolina for the crown.
Rather than a quick KO in an NCAA Tournament, the Flyers extended that season into April and had a glorious night of celebration with their fans on the fabled court in midtown Manhattan.
And if UD doesn’t win the Atlantic 10 Tournament this weekend in Brooklyn, it likely will be in the NIT with Wright State and teams like Xavier, Clemson, Indiana, Butler, Alabama, Temple and maybe Ohio State, too, unless, of course, one should win its conference tournament.
Tuesday night the stage seemed set for WSU to return to the NCAA Tournament for just the fourth time ever.
Unlike last year – when the Raiders surprised folks and won the Horizon League crown before being overmatched by Tennessee in the NCAA’s first round – this season the Raiders were preseason favorites in the league, shared the regular season title with NKU, came into the tournament as the No 1 seed and then promptly dispatched IUPUI and Green Bay.
Northern Kentucky needed a last-second three pointer by Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald to topple Oakland in the other semifinal late Monday night.
But anyone who thought the Norse had used up their luck or their legs, quickly found out differently.
NKU shot a blistering 70 percent (7 of 10) from three-point rage in the first half and 59.3 percent overall from the floor to send WSU reeling almost from the opening tip.
The Raiders trailed by as many as 18 in the first half and 20 in the second.
While the Norse got career nights from several role players – five scored considerably more than their season averages – Wright State had an across-the-board failure.
Horizon League first teamer Loudon Love struggled on offense – 2 for 13 – and on defense and ended the game on the bench.
None of the Raiders role players did anything exceptional and the two freshmen, who played well much of the season, looked like freshman. All that led to WSU playing one of its worst games of the season.
Afterward the Raiders players and Nagy all commended NKU for rising to the moment and then the coach tried to add some perspective for his own team.
“What I have to remember sometimes, if you just make it about the destination, sometimes you can just be miserable to be around. My players have taught me it’s more than just the destination, it’s the journey.
“I’ve just had a great time with these guys. I really have. And I told them today how much I admired them for how hard they played this year. I’m really proud of what they did.
“We started out losing Jaylon Hall. We had to get past that and at first we didn’t play well and lost a lot of tough games. At one point we were 8-10 and 2-3 in the league. And then we win the league.
“It’s been an incredible thing for me to watch, to the point, as a coach, it almost brings me to tears.”
Coming from Nagy – a guy who doesn’t share many touchy-feely moments in public – that resonates.
And it underscored his prime point:
“This doesn’t diminish the great time we’ve had…not because we played one bad game here.”
Back out in the arena a few minutes later, WSU’s fifth-year senior, Parker Ernsthausen was asked about the tonic that comes from appreciating the journey and not just focusing on the destination.
He was up in the Little Caesars stands talking to his mom and dad. Out on the court, the NKU players and fans – just as he and his teammates had done on the very same floor the year before – were celebrating in a swirl of confetti and tears and utter joy.
“They had guys step up tonight who normally don’t make shots for them,” he said. “But that’s kind of how games can go.
“When we played Green Bay in Coach D’s last year – (he was referring to former WSU coach Billy Donlon and the Raiders’ Horizon League title game loss in 2016) – they had guys who hadn’t made shots in three or four games all make shots. That changed the game and we had to live with it.
“It’s the same thing here, but we’ve had a great year and we have the NIT coming up.
“I know it’s about the journey ultimately and if you only have destinations, life is going to be pretty disappointing if you don’t reach those or your course gets altered.”
Then, as another wave of cheers rose up from the NKU fans, Ernsthausen looked out at the court for a moment and admitted:
“Obviously we’d like to be the guys out there celebrating. The destination is also great. The NCAA Tournament is great and I’m not going to down talk it just because we’re not in it this year.
“Hopefully they’ll represent the Horizon League well.
“And hopefully we’ll do the same…in the NIT.”