Scott Nagy’s teams have a history of pulling off Christmas season surprises. Wright State notched an upset over Georgia Tech last year, and South Dakota State under Nagy knocked off Iowa State, Washington and No. 16 New Mexico — all on the road within a week of the holiday.
The Raiders came close to producing another yuletide shocker at Mississippi State on Saturday, despite playing without star center Loudon Love (ankle injury). They rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit to tie the game with 5:52 to go and still were within one with 2:25 left.
But the Bulldogs — rated 17th in the Associated Press poll and 16th in the coaches Top 25 — converted on offense while hounding the Raiders into four straight misses after that to hang on for a 67-63 victory at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, Miss.
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Bill Wampler scored 19 points, making 4-of-9 three-pointers, while Parker Ernsthausen and Mark Hughes chipped in 11 as the Raiders — trying to beat a ranked opponent for the first time since a win over Butler in 2007— fell to 6-7 overall and 0-6 away from the Nutter Center.
“It’s a tough balance as a coach,” Nagy said on his postgame radio show. “I am not interested in being happy with losing a basketball game. I have no interest in that. And I don’t want to coach anyone who is. But it’s still commendable how hard our kids are playing. We’re in a lot of close games, and we’re not winning them, and we’ve got to get that figured out.”
Nagy’s scheduling strategy is to catch top teams on the road near Christmas break, knowing their students have already left campus and their players probably are longing for home. And it almost worked again.
Wright State, which is 2-33 all-time against current Power-5 conference teams, pulled within 43-42 on a Wampler 3 with 12:59 to go. Mississippi State (11-1) then went on a 10-0 run, but the Raiders weren’t done.
Another Wampler 3 cut the lead to 55-52 with 7:11 left, forcing Mississippi State to burn a timeout.
Ernsthausen then hit a 3 from the top of the key to make it 55-all.
The deficit was one after Ernsthausen made a pair of free throws with 2:25 to go. But a Tyson Carter jumper made it 62-59, and then the Raiders’ Cole Gentry missed a drive, and Wampler couldn’t connect on a put-back.
After a Bulldog turnover, Wampler made the front end of a one-and-one but missed the second with 53.6 seconds left. All-SEC guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, who had a team-high 14 points, then made two free throws and, after Gentry missed a drive, Lamar Peters made two more for a 66-60 lead with 21.8 seconds left.
Wampler then missed a 3, ending the drama.
“Like I told the guys, ‘Compete in the first half like we did in the second, and you probably win the game,’” Nagy said. “But we had balls hit us in the hand. We just did things that were uncharacteristic. It was like, ‘Do you believe or not?’
“I’ve done this enough to know what it looks like when a team believes. We saw it in the second half. But in the first half we were questioning.
“I’m back to where I was last year: I have to convince these guys they’re better than they’re playing. They are. My frustration is I believe more in them than they believe in themselves.”