Second-half rally lifts Wright State over Milwaukee

Wright State's Tanner Holden goes in for a dunk over Tafari Simms off a Milwaukee turnover early in Thursday night's game at the Nutter Center. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED

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Wright State's Tanner Holden goes in for a dunk over Tafari Simms off a Milwaukee turnover early in Thursday night's game at the Nutter Center. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED

FAIRBORN – After five minutes of ugly basketball to start the second half, the Wright State players had to know what head coach Scott Nagy was thinking and, perhaps, yelling at his TV. Nagy wasn’t at the Nutter Center.

The coach was home watching his team play for the first time in 27 years because of COVID-19 protocols. Instead, associate head coach Clint Sargent was waiting at the bench after the first media timeout of the half. The Raiders, who trailed by one at halftime, now trailed Milwaukee by 11, and Sargent challenged the team to stop being outworked.

“It was bleak,” Sargent said. “And that’s when your character is tested, and that’s when we showed up.”

The Raiders responded with a 16-4 run to regain the lead for good and hold off Milwaukee 80-75 for a Horizon League victory Thursday night at the Nutter Center.

“It’s a crazy game, a unique game missing your head coach,” said junior guard Tanner Holden. “We did a great job responding and getting the win tonight.”

Holden sparked the Raiders (5-7, 2-1) with 13 of his 22 points in the second half. He attacked the basket often and made 8 of 12 free throws. Holden also had six assists.

“Basketball’s a game of runs,” Holden said. “You’ve just got to be ready to counter it. We did a good job of staying together, sticking to what we’re good at and sticking to what got us the wins leading up to this game.”

The team effort showed up in winning plays. Forward C.J. Wilbourn, a two-year starter at Milwaukee before joining the Raiders this year, started in place of freshman A.J. Braun, who was also not at the game. Wilborn began the 16-4 run with a steal and layup.

“He was ready and played unbelievable for us,” said junior forward Grant Basile. “That steal and coast-to-coast layup was tremendous.”

Backup point guard Keaton Norris took a charge with 12 minutes left and the Raiders down 57-51.

“The biggest play was probably Keaton Norris taking that charge,” Holden said. “We had a little run offensively and the momentum was coming our way, and he took that charge going into that TV timeout, and I really think the energy completely changed.”

Tim Finke put the Raiders up 60-59 with a difficult left-handed layup on the fast break. Then Basile, who had 12 points, scored twice out of the timeout for a five-point lead. Andrew Welage played more off the bench than usual and made a big foul-line jumper in transition for a 66-61 lead.

Milwaukee (3-9, 1-2) trailed 74-71 when Holden passed inside to Welage who passed out to the left corner where Finke was open. Finke made the clinching 3-pointer to finish with 11 points.

“To have those moments go right for him (Finke) and for our players, as a coach that’s all you want to see,” Sargent said. “Andrew was great. He displayed really good composure for somebody who’s not been in those moments very much.”

Trey Calvin, who scored 14 points, finished off the Panthers with three free throws.

Milwaukee was also affected by COVID. Star freshman and five-star recruit Patrick Baldwin Jr., the son of head coach Pat Baldwin, stayed home because of COVID protocols. DeAndre Gholston led the Panthers with 26 points.

On the scoreboard, the season is suddenly going more like the Raiders expected. They’ve won three straight, including an 84-70 victory at North Carolina State last week.

“It was a big momentum swing,” Holden said. “We weren’t expected to win that game at all. We weren’t expected to be in it. We really stuck together and were unified as a team.”

The turnaround that the Raiders hope turns into a fourth straight regular season league title began when they started playing better defense. In early losses at Marshall and Purdue, the Raiders gave up over 90 points. Then they lost three straight at a tournament in Florida.

“It’s our effort and buying into it,” Basile said. “You can’t win games if you’re giving up 90 points. That’s the culture we’ve built the last three years, and that’s what we’re starting to do again.”

SATURDAY’S GAME

Green Bay at Wright State, 2 p.m., ESPN+, 980

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