Calling it “a good, old-fashioned rock fight,” Wright State coach Scott Nagy was understandably relieved to have survived Monday night’s Horizon League tournament semifinal game against Milwaukee that featured 79 missed shots.
Freshman Loudon Love scored 18 points, and freshman Jaylon Hall added 12 off the bench to help the Raiders advance to Tuesday night’s championship game with a 59-53 victory at Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit.
“I can’t imagine ESPN loved that game much,” Nagy said. “In terms of viewability, it was a tough deal. But it was good defensive basketball.”
Second-seeded Wright State (24-9) will face No. 8 Cleveland State (12-22), which upset No. 4 Oakland 44-43 in Monday’s first semifinal.
Here are five takeaways from a record-breaking win for the Raiders:
The game turned late in the first half when Milwaukee, which had led by as many as six, missed eight of its last nine shots before the break and Wright State went on a 9-2 run to carry a 27-25 advantage into the locker room.
The Panthers missed seven of their first eight shots in the second half, meaning they were 2 of 17 over a stretch of 14 minutes and 22 seconds. And they never recovered.
“We rely on our defense,” junior guard Mark Hughes said. “We only shot 33 percent and still won the game. That just goes to show if you’re getting stops, you put yourself in a good spot to win.”
WSU only won two other games this season when shooting worse. The Raiders made 32.8 percent in a 65-61 win against UIC in the conference opener Dec. 28, and they hit 32.8 percent in a 68-64 triumph of Green Bay on Feb. 8.
Held scoreless in the first half and without a field goal for nearly 37 minutes, Hughes hit the biggest shot of the game.
Milwaukee’s Jeremiah Bell, who led all scorers with 22 points, had just moved the Panthers to within three when Hughes swished a 3-pointer to up the lead to six with 3:03 to go.
“I got a good look in the corner from Jaylon (Hall) driving baseline,” Hughes said. “I slid with him, like we’re taught, and got a good look. It felt good coming out. That was a big shot for us. It put us up six. We just rode that lead out basically.”
Hughes finished with seven points and six rebounds, one of which came with 4:50 to go when he went over the much bigger Bryce Nze before racing up the court and driving to basket to draw a foul, leading to two free throws for his first points.
“Not only was it a great rebound, it was an important one,” Nagy said. “Then he came down the floor and I could just tell there was a different feel to him. And then pretty soon after that he hit that (3-pointer).”
The assist to Hughes on the 3-pointer was one of several big plays turned in by Hall, the only non-starter to score for either team.
Nagy praised the freshman’s defense against Bell, Milwaukee’s second-team all-league guard who needed 24 shots to get his 22 points.
“It was unbelievable how he played in the second half, just with so much confidence and making big plays,” Nagy said. “A big rebound and a big pass to Mark. Great defense on Bell. It’s unbelievable how far he’s come defensively. I mean we can take him and almost put him on their best player. He has completely changed his game defensively, and it’s why he’s playing so much.”
Hall also hit both ends of the one-and-one bonus to stretch a five-point lead to seven with 1:01 to go, and he did it again to up the advantage from four to six with 37 ticks remaining.
With the win, Wright State set the Division I program record with 24 in a season.
Nagy said he knows the big one would be No. 25 to advance to the NCAA tournament, but he made sure to bring up the record in the locker room.
“I even mentioned it to the guys afterward,” he said. “It should mean something. It’s a big accomplishment. It’s not why we came here, but it’s still a big accomplishment when you consider all the basketball that’s been played at Wright State.”
After committing five turnovers in the first eight minutes, Wright State only had five more over the final 32 minutes.
And even when the Raiders got sloppy with the ball, they got back and defended, limited Milwaukee to five points off the turnovers.