AJ Pacher led Wright State in points, rebounds, steals and motivational words Saturday afternoon at Illinois-Chicago.
Following a first half that lacked the toughness and resolve one might expect from a team with so much on the line, Pacher waited for coach Billy Donlon to finish talking and then addressed his teammates.
Then the senior forward backed up his words with a physical and productive second half that enabled the Raiders to pull away from the Flames for a 68-61 victory.
“I told the guys we had to take away their hope,” Pacher said of the last-place Flames (6-24, 1-15 Horizon League), who were playing for little more than pride.
“It was winning time, and we needed to make winning plays and get stops,” Pacher added. “We knew we could get what we wanted on offense, so really it came down to the defensive end.”
Pacher scored 11 of his team-high 16 points and grabbed six of his team-high eight rebounds after the break as Wright State erased a five-point deficit with a 10-0 run and then held UIC without a field goal over the final 8:40 to clinch the No. 3 seed and a first-round bye in this week’s conference tournament.
“There’s a little sigh of relief knowing we can get on the bus and know we’ve secured our bye and can just wait to see whoever we play next,” said senior guard Matt Vest, who had 11 points, four rebounds, four assists and several head nods as Pacher was imploring his teammates to play tougher during his halftime speech.
“We weren’t tough in the first half defensively,” Vest said. “We let guys bully us down the lane, and that was across the board. It was me and it was everybody. They were getting us inside and just taking it through our chest. We came out in the second half and played a little tougher defensively and that was the difference in the game.”
The Flames made just 6 of 22 shots in the second half. Included in the 16 misses were back-to-back 3-point tries by senior all-conference forward Kelsey Barlow that would have tied it in the final 30 seconds.
“We had some good looks at the basket down the stretch,” UIC coach Howard Moore said. “Unfortunately, those don’t go down.”
Barlow led the Flames with 16 points despite sitting out the final 16 minutes of the first half after picking up two quick fouls.
But with Barlow on the bench, the Flames erased a nine-point WSU lead to go into halftime with a one-point lead.
“Sometimes it’s either a blessing or a curse when the other team’s best player goes out,” Donlon said. “When Kelsey was out, our guys’ sense of urgency wasn’t where it needed to be and the UIC kids, their urgency went up. Those guys fought, and they kicked our tails in the first half on all the toughness plays.
“They scored 18 points in the paint and made 11 free throws, so 29 of their 33 points came in the paint,” Donlon added. “That’s all toughness. That’s all effort. That’s all wanting to win. They dominated us in that part of the game.”
But the Raiders got tough down the stretch, holding UIC without a field goal on its final 21 possessions while getting the ball inside on offense and getting to the line, even if they were unable to capitalize by hitting only 15 of 26 free throws.
Jerran Young and Chrishawn Hopkins each added eight points for WSU, which will open conference tournament play Friday night in Green Bay against the winner of the game between the Nos. 6 and 7 seeds.
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