Mark Hughes was different.
Moments before Thursday’s game with Green Bay, each player on the Wright State team made his way to the end of the bench where Ryan Custer — their 6-foot-7 teammate hurt in a freak accident in the offseason that fractured his C-5 vertebrae and left him with no feeling below his chest — sat in his wheelchair.
One after another the players gave Custer a quick fist bump and then hustled off for their spots on the bench or out on the Nutter Center floor for the opening tip.
But Hughes — as would be the theme of his night — did a little more.
Grinning warmly as he approached, the junior guard leaned down and kissed Custer on the left cheek and whispered, “I love you.”
In response, he said Custer told him, “Show me something out there.”
Hughes nodded and later admitted: “I knew I had to do it for him. I told him I would.”
And he certainly did.
In the first half, with Wright State playing some of its worst basketball of the season, Hughes was having the game of his life.
As the team’s three leading scorers — Grant Benzinger, Loudon Love and Cole Gentry — were going a combined 0-for-9 from the floor and scoring zero points in the first half, Hughes already had the first double-double of his career in the initial 13 minutes.
“He carried us tonight,” Love said. “We had 19 points at halftime and if you’d asked me, I’d have said all of them were his.”
“In the first three minutes he got every rebound,” added Raiders coach Scott Nagy.
Hughes — who is averaging 2.4 and in the past six games had combined for 12 — finished with a career-best 14 rebounds to go with 13 points as the Raiders twice came from 11-point deficits in the second half to edge the Phoenix, 68-64.
WSU is 19-7 overall and 11-2 in the Horizon League, tied with Northern Kentucky for the conference lead.
After the game, Hughes explained his stellar outing:
“I just know I haven’t rebounded well all season. I’m a big, athletic guard. I should be getting rebounds.
“So I figured: Now is my time. Why not me, really?”
But on this “do something” night, he gave Custer more than just a formidable line in the box score.
As he often does, he put on a defensive clinic. This time the target was Green Bay’s senior guard Khalil Small, the reigning Horizon League player of the week who is a 1,000-point career scorer and is averaging 17.8 points this season.
In the first half, Small was 1 for 7 from the floor and had two points. He would finish with 11 on 4 for 14 shooting and one of his 3-pointers came against Jaylon Hall, not Hughes.
“I think Mark is the best defender in the league.” Nagy said. “I’m certainly glad we have him to put on every team’s best player.”
After the Oakland game two weeks ago, Nagy, who’s in his 23rd year as a head coach, offered more praise: “On the ball he’s about as good as anybody I’ve ever coached. He gives himself up every night to guard the best player.”
And besides the points, rebounds and defense, Hughes gave Custer one more thing.
He showed some toughness and in-your-face savvy with just under seven minutes left and WSU leading by two.
Sandy Cohen, Green Bay’s swaggering 6-foot-6 guard, stole the ball from him off the press and was headed for a breakaway score, when Hughes closed in on him hard, hacked at the ball and sent him slamming into the padded upright holding the basket.
Cohen hopped up and was nose to nose with Hughes as he spewed invective.
“He made a good play, he’s a good player, but I wasn’t trying to hurt him or anything,” Hughes said. “I just tried to slap at the ball.
“I wasn’t going to give him a free dunk. He’s a good scorer and good scorers see the ball go in and they get going. I wanted him to earn his points at the free-throw line.
“He got in my face, though, and said some things. Basically, it was: ‘Why the (expletive) you do that? You should have just let me go!’
“I told him ‘(Expletive) no!’ I told him it was just basketball and to get out of my face and really to just get over it. He could have all the tough guy stuff. We just wanted to win the game.”
Cohen continued his verbal onslaught and the players were separated.
Hughes was called for the foul, while Cohen got a technical.
Benzinger made both of the Raiders’ technical throws. Cohen missed one of his two foul shots.
Advantage Wright State.
“We talk about that a lot,” Nagy said. “We say don’t let your pride get in the way and you hurt the team. When you do that, it’s selfish play. It becomes all about you and not doing right for the team.
“You’ve got to be smart on the floor and Mark was.”
Mom could jump
Hughes mostly credits his mom, Tracie, for his athletic genes.
“She played college volleyball at Penn State,” he said. “She was pretty good. She could jump.”
So who’s the better college athlete?
“Aaaah…errrh…I don’t know,” Hughes laughed before dropping pretenses. “I believe in myself. I think I’m a pretty good athlete … I guess it would be close.”
His trademark defense developed when he was at Youngstown’s Ursuline High, where, as a senior, he was a Division III All-Ohio first team selection.
“My coach, Keith Gunther, told me if I wanted to get on the floor in college, I’d have to be a great defender. I took that really seriously and made it my thing.”
Nagy said Hughes is good defensively because, at 6-4, he‘s bigger than a lot of guys he guards, has long arms and has “tremendous anticipation and great lateral quickness.”
Hughes, though, said it’s more than that:
“You’ve got to WANT to play defense. It takes a mental toughness to guard a good player every time down the court when he can drive, shoot and pass.
“You have to make it that if he’s going to hit a tough shot, he’s gonna have to work for it. A lot of times you see guys start to pass off more because they know that. I’ve seen a couple times where coaches check their dudes out altogether because they’re turning the ball over or missing shots.
“I’ll tell you there’s a good feeling looking over at the guy across from you and just knowing he’s not getting nothin’.”
Kept his word
Hughes is good friends with Justin Mitchell, the senior guard who was one of the best players on the team — No. 2 in rebounding and assists, No. 3 in scoring, still No. 1 in steals — who suddenly left after 16 games this season.
It’s been said he left for “personal reasons.”
“He’s still definitely my boy,” Hughes said. “He’s really a cool dude. I consider him my brother.
“At the end of the day I respect his decision. He felt it was best for him. But we knew we had to put that aside. We’ve got a championship to win and now each of us has to step up a little bit more.”
“We all love Justin. We really do,” Nagy said. “It was hard for everybody, but the kids have done a great job of not letting it affect them.”
Thursday night, after Hughes carried the Raiders early, other players finally stepped up down the stretch.
Benzinger scored all of his game-high 22 points in the final 12 minutes. Jaylon Hall added 16 points and Love rallied for 13 rebounds and nine points.
“I feel championships are made off a win like this tonight,” Hughes said. “We came together and did what we had to.”
And he a little more.
He kept his word to Ryan Custer.
He’s a guy who does kiss … and tell.
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