If Wright State basketball coach Billy Donlon needed someone to lean on after a vexing start to the season at the Northern Illinois Showcase last weekend, he probably could find a sympathetic ear among the soccer staff at the school.
After a win in the opener against South Dakota, the Raiders appeared in control in their next two games but let them slip away.
They led by 10 with six minutes to go and by five with three minutes left against Cal State Northridge before falling, 72-67.
They had a four-point lead with five minutes remaining against host NIU and succumbed, 65-59.
“We played 120 minutes, and 110 of them were really pretty good. Unfortunately, five minutes in each of the losses — which happened to be the last five minutes — were horrible. And it cost us two games,” Donlon said.
“I know what our soccer coaches feel like. They say soccer is unlike any other sport because you can be dominated and win. Or you can dominate and tie or lose. I don’t want to say we dominated anybody, but when you build double-figure leads in all the games, and you come out 1-2, you really have a bad taste in your mouth.”
The Raiders squandered some nifty shooting displays in the defeats. They were a combined 22-of-44 on 3-pointers.
But they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves on defense, committing 62 fouls in the losses. Cal State was 20-of-32 on free throws and Northern Illinois 25-of-33, while the Raiders were a combined 14-of-18.
Donlon, though, saw plenty to build on and is looking to reboot the psyches of his players after their travails last season. Coming off two straight trips to the Horizon League tourney finals, the Raiders were beset with a rash of injuries and finished 11-20.
They lost their last 10 games and 13 of their final 14.
“(Sophomore guard) Grant Benzinger came in our office Monday and said, ‘Coach, it feels just like last year.’ I said, ‘Grant, it’s nothing like last year. We were fighting for our lives just to make it a six- or seven-point DEFICIT at the five-minute mark. Now, we grinded and had 10-point advantages at the five minute mark. That’s flipping the script,’ ” Donlon said.
“What we have to learn is to close (games). Hopefully, when we get in that position again, we’ll know how to do it.”
The Raiders would be thrilled to find themselves in a tight tussle in their next outing Friday when they visit No. 2 Kentucky, which is loaded again with NBA prospects.
Wright State, which will receive a $95,000 payout for the game, according to Donlon, has played marquee programs in recent seasons but none quite like UK, which won the 2012 national title and went undefeated last season until a loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
“You’re talking about an incredible run they’ve been on since Coach (John) Calipari has taken over,” Donlon said.
As for the Raiders’ strategy, Donlon said: “You’ve got to do a couple things different, but it’s tricky as a coach. You try to do the things you do well. You can’t just go in there for the Kentucky game and change everything because that sends the wrong message to your players.
“You have to make a few minor tweaks maybe and then just do the things we do. If they work, great. If they don’t, hopefully you’ll be better moving forward.”