Raiders’ go-to guys stepping up down stretch

Through the first 25 games of the season, there were just two times when the Wright State men’s basketball team had a player score 20 or more points.

But in the last five games, it’s happened three times, with Cole Darling (20 vs. Youngstown State and 21 at Oakland) doing it twice and AJ Pacher (20 vs. Valparaiso) once.

Not coincidentally, all three 20-point performances led to wins.

“I think we’ve done a better job of getting it in there and getting it to those spots where they need to get it,” said Wright State coach Billy Donlon, who would love to see another 20-point performance on the road this afternoon in the regular-season finale against last-place Illinois-Chicago.

A victory would clinch the No. 3 seed and a first-round bye in the Horizon League tournament, a goal the Raiders (17-13, 9-6) have been pursuing for the last three weeks while knowing one slip could ruin their chances.

And that desperation has been as much of a factor in the big-point efforts as anything.

“I think those two guys, Cole and AJ, have played with great urgency,” Donlon said. “All the guys have played with urgency, but AJ and Cole are two of our very best scorers. And certainly they’re hard to guard down there.”

JT Yoho (20 at Milwaukee) and Pacher (21 in the season opener against Mount St. Joseph) had the other two 20-point games to account for Wright’s State five this season. There are five Horizon League players who have more 20-point games by themselves — Detroit’s Juwan Howard Jr. (eight), Oakland’s Travis Bader (six), Valparaiso’s LaVonte Dority (six), Youngstown State’s Kendrick Perry (six) and Green Bay’s Keifer Sykes (six).

But Donlon is more than OK with that. His blueprint since the season began has been balance.

“We’ve wanted to play lineups with Jerran (Young), Cole, JT and AJ, because most teams in our league play three guards,” he said. “So one of those three guards is going to have to guard one of those guys, and now we post them up and do some other things.”

Injuries, however, have kept Donlon from implementing the plan as often as he would like, as Pacher is the only player on the team who has appeared in every game.

But whetherbecause of injury or an opposing game plan that is determined to take someone away, the Raiders have been able to find other people to produce points.

Ten players have led the team in scoring, and only three times has the same guy done it in back-to-back games.

“I can point to a lot of games — all the games — where it’s about who’s playing well that night,” Donlon said. “That’s the one thing that definitely rings true.”

The other message ringing in the Raiders’ ears the last few days is that they can’t let up today against UIC (6-23, 1-14 HL), a team that had lost 17 in a row before winning at Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Tuesday.

“They have talent,” Donlon said. “Kelsey Barlow is phenomenal. And obviously we’re playing them on their Senior Night. The worst feeling in the world is to lose on your Senior Night. I know because I’ve done it. But do I believe if we go there and play well that we can win the game? Absolutely. And that’s what we’ll try to focus on.”

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