CLEMSON, S.C. — The start was just awful. But it didn’t define Wright State University’s first-ever basketball game in the National Invitation Tournament.
The visiting Raiders fell behind 16-2 against Clemson on Tuesday night before a spring-break crowd of 1,718 at Littlejohn Coliseum, but rallied to take a six-point lead before falling 75-69.
“We’ve never been a team to give in. I think our season attests to that,” said WSU sophomore center Loudon Love, who collected 14 points and nine rebounds. “Even in our (Horizon League) championship game against Northern Kentucky, we were down 20 and still fought until the last whistle. That’s just something we do naturally.”
That six-point advantage (47-41) came on a Love stickback with 13:55 remaining. Clemson responded with a 14-3 spurt to go up 55-50, though the Raiders would take the lead two more times.
“I was super pleased with our players to bounce back from the kind of start we had,” Wright State coach Scott Nagy said. “We didn’t do a very good job finishing the game, but we’re playing a good team and an incredibly experienced team.”
The second-seeded Tigers, who finished tied for eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year, improved to 20-13 and got double-digit scoring from Marcquise Reed (24), Elijah Thomas (17), David Skara (16) and Clyde Trapp (12).
Clemson shot 48.2 percent from the floor and outscored WSU 5-0 over the last 84 seconds. The Raiders missed two free throws during that stretch.
“I thought our guys made a lot of big-time offensive plays,” Tigers coach Brad Brownell said. “I thought we really made shots and executed in the second half and down the stretch when we needed to finish a game.”
Bill Wampler’s 17 points paced the Raiders (21-14), who were seeded seventh. Cole Gentry (13), Mark Hughes (12) and Skyelar Potter (11) were also among Wright State’s offensive leaders.
“We expected to win,” Hughes said. “That’s our mentality every game. The coaches put in a good game plan. We missed some plays down the stretch, and they had some guys who made shots that we didn’t think would.”
Here are five takeaways from the game:
1. Beware the mid-major
The Horizon League Raiders certainly had their chances to take down an ACC opponent. Nagy said if it had happened, it might have gone down as the biggest win in Wright State’s Division I history.
It may not have been the NCAA tournament, but Brownell said the NIT is deserving of respect.
“The mid-major teams that are in the tournament, most of them won their leagues,” he said. “It’s probably a lot more difficult to even make the NIT than folks realize. There’s a lot of high-major teams sitting at home.”
Skara, a 6-foot-8 graduate student from Croatia, wasn’t surprised the Raiders came to play.
“I’ve been on a mid-major before, so I know how it is when you’re coming into a high-major school,” he said. “You want to beat them. You want to prove that you are good enough, so I knew and we knew that they were going to come in and want to get a win from us.”
Said Nagy, “This is still a great tournament, and how do you convince your guys of that? Every team that’s in it is a dang good college basketball team. To advance in it would be an honor.”
2. NIT takes a new approach
There are experimental rules in place for the NIT this year. They include:
• The 3-point line will be extended by approximately 1 foot, 8 inches to the same distance used by FIBA for international competition (22 feet, 1.75 inches).
• The free-throw lane will be widened from 12 to 16 feet, consistent with the width used by the NBA.
• The shot clock will reset to 20 seconds after an offensive rebound instead of the full 30 seconds.
• Team fouls will reset at the 10-minute mark of each half for the purpose of determining free throws, and one-and-one free throws will be eliminated.
• Teams will shoot two bonus free throws after the fifth team foul of each 10-minute segment.
• Teams will be awarded two bonus free throws after the second team foul committed with under two minutes remaining in each half if that foul occurs before the fifth team foul of the segment.
• In each overtime period, team fouls will reset, and teams will shoot two free throws beginning with the fourth team foul or the second team foul committed with under two minutes remaining if that comes before the fourth team foul of the OT period.
3. For WSU, a quartet of seniors
Wright State has four seniors on its roster: Hughes, Parker Ernsthausen, Alan Vest and Adam Giles.
Hughes, a 6-4, 205-pound guard from Youngstown, finished his career with 863 points. He said he’ll now turn his focus to getting an opportunity to play overseas.
“It’s always hard when you’re playing your last game,” Hughes said. “But honestly, I gave my all, so I can look at myself in the mirror and I’m OK with that at the end of the day. I left it all out there for these guys and I’m going to miss them, but I’m definitely happy with how my career turned out.”
4. Big shots by both sides
The deeper 3-point line didn’t seem to faze either team. Wright State was 1o-of-25 from beyond the arc, while Clemson was 8-of-18.
Nagy thought Trapp’s 3-pointer with 3:18 remaining was a critical conversion. It gave the hosts a 66-62 lead after Reed’s three free throws had made it 63-62.
“I thought the biggest shot of the game was Trapp’s 3,” Nagy said. “We did everything we wanted to do. We helped in, and in terms of their experience, we probably want him shooting that shot. And he made it.”
5. Tigers know the NIT
While Tuesday’s game was Wright State’s first appearance in the NIT, Clemson has now been in the tournament 17 times.
The Tigers are 19-16 in NIT contests, and that includes a 13-4 mark at Littlejohn Coliseum. They made it to the championship game in 1999 and 2007.
Clemson will meet Furman or Wichita State in the second round of the NIT.