If Wright State’s day could be encapsulated in one play, it would be this one:
With 57.4 seconds left in the first half of the Horizon League Tournament’s title game Tuesday afternoon at Little Caesars Arena, there was a loose ball and the Raiders’ Mackenzie Taylor and Green Bay’s Jen Wellnitz both dived for it near the sideline.
The back of Taylor’s head slammed into Wellnitz’s forehead, but after a few seconds the Green Bay guard got up, walked over toward her teammates and coach and then stayed in the game.
Taylor lay crumpled on the court and after a good minute she was helped back up and headed slowly to the bench in tears. Eventually she sat down with a towel covering her face. Maybe it was to deal with the hurt and to dry her tears. Maybe it was because she could not bear to watch.
In No. 22 Green Bay, the Raiders were playing one of the best teams in the nation and they weren’t playing them well. They hadn’t made a three point shot all half, were shooting only 22.2 percent from the floor and were getting outmuscled by the taller Phoenix on the boards.
Green Bay was up 38-21 at the half and would go on to an easy 62-44 victory .
If Ivan Drago, the Russian intimidator of Rocky IV, wore tennis shoes and had an extra X chromosome, he’d be the Green Bay women.
The Phoenix have won seven of the last eight Horizon League titles and 16 of the last 21.
They have beaten WSU 35 of the last 36 times they’ve played each other and are 62-4 overall since the two teams first met in 1980.
The one big victory the Raiders had against Green Bay came in the finals of the 2014 tournament. With Tay’ler Mingo scoring 31 points and tournament MVP Kim Demmings adding 26, WSU came from 10 points down to surge past the Phoenix, take the crown and win the only NCAA Tournament berth in program history.
WSU head coach Katrina Merriweather was an assistant on that team and Demmings is now part of the Raiders staff, but that moment wasn’t discussed before Tuesday’s game.
“Oh no, nobody on that team is here,” Merriweather said. “We don’t talk about last year. We’re not the same team, even though we have the same starters.
“I don’t think (the 2014 victory) means anything, except that they would think this is something different than it is. You have to be able to play in the moment, all 40 minutes when you play against them.”
The WSU women – now 23-10 – struggled with the moment at hand Tuesday.
They shot 7.7 percent from three point range (1 for 13,) were outrebounded by 15 and gave up 32 points in the paint.
Horizon League Player of the Year Chelsea Welch went just 2 for 15 from the floor. On the strength of free throws, she finished with 13 points. Guard Emily Vogelpohl was 2 for 10 from the floor and forward Symone Simmons went 1 for 5.
The only player who shot well was senior forward Lexi Smith, who was 6 for 8 from the field for 14 points.
Green Bay – which already had beaten No. 24 Arizona State, No. 22 Marquette, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Dayton this season – is now 29-3.
Asked if she thought her players felt a mystique when it came to the Green Bay team, Merriweather shook her head:
“First of all, because of the way I view them, they don’t view them as any kind of team. They view them as a program.
“Anybody at any level would strive to do what they do – to have championship culture and a championship program. Not to continue to toot their horn, but (Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth) redshirts kids every year, plays eight or nine and they are always a top 25 program.
“We are doing our best to take steps to be that, to be consistently good, and I think (Green Bay) respects us and comes ready to play.”
Wright State has made great strides and has had seven winning seasons in the past eight. After the NCAA Tournament bid, they have been in three straight WNIT tournaments.
In the past five seasons they have had the Horizon League Player of the Year four times.
Welch, a product of Fairmont High School, carried on that tradition this season and as she reflected on the year and what it meant to be as Raider, she broke down into sobs on the postgame podium.
Sitting next to her, Merriweather reached over and rubbed her back and whispered: “ It’s OK.”
Welch finally calmed enough to speak: “I’m a transfer (from Pitt.) I didn’t really feel like at my past school that I fit in. I wasn’t happy. I was so far from home and couldn’t go home.
“I was miserable.
“I came to Wright State and everyone took me in right away – from administrators to staff, even professors. Some of them would call me to see how I was doing. I found a home at Wright State, I found a family.”
You could see that familial attitude on the bench after the game. The crestfallen Raiders comforted each other and even managed to applaud Green Bay, which stood on a spotlighted podium wearing championship hats and receiving the trophy. Then they would be showered in confetti, cut down the nets and eventually head to another NCAA Tournament.
Merriweather, though, liked what she saw in her team:
“I am really really proud of this team. At one point this season we were 5-4 and could have quit and given up. But they made a decision to be a better team and that’s why we were able to play in this game today.”
And with more strides, they hope to starting winning the title again.