Wright State senior Trey Stacey started the celebration by firing the ball high into the air as soon as the final second expired, and coach Scott Nagy concluded it with a scissor snip that transformed the net from an ordinary piece of nylon into a historic relic.
In between there were hugs, tears, cheers and, of course, confetti as Raiders players, coaches and fans reveled in the program’s first NCAA tournament berth in 11 years after beating Cleveland State 74-57 in the Horizon League championship game Tuesday night at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Senior Grant Benzinger guaranteed himself at least 40 more minutes in a Wright State uniform with a game-high 19 points and nine rebounds, a performance that also helped earn him the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
Freshman center Loudon Love, who also made the all-tournament team, added nine points and a game-high 12 rebounds, while sophomore Cole Gentry and freshman Jaylon Hall each scored 11 as WSU improved to 25-9.
The Raiders will find out who, when and where they will be playing when the NCAA announces the 68-team bracket at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Until then, here are five takeaways from the game:
In three tournament games, Benzinger scored 42 points, had 28 rebounds, six assists and zero turnovers.
He said he thought they media got it wrong when they voted him the Most Outstanding Player.
“I think Lou (teammate Loudin Love) deserved the Most Outstanding Player,” Benzinger said. “He outplayed me the first two games. I just had a great championship game. I think Lou deserved it.
We’re roommates, actually, for this trip, and I just told him I wanted to empty my tank tonight and just leave it all on the floor and have no regrets,” Benzinger continued. “And he did the same.”
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Love had 44 points, 41 rebounds, six assists and eight turnovers.
Also making the all-tournament team were Cleveland State’s Tyree Appleby and Kenny Carpenter and Green Bay’s Khalil Small.
As the No. 8 seed, Cleveland State was one of four teams who had to begin the Horizon League tournament Friday.
That meant Tuesday’s championship game was the Vikings’ fourth game in five days, which might explain them missing 10 of their first 11 3-point shots and then fading down the stretch.
But Wright State coach Scott Nagy said he didn’t think it was that much of an advantage for his team, which was in its third game in four days and second in less than 24 hours after playing a 9:30 p.m. semifinal Monday and 7 p.m. final Tuesday.
“We didn’t get back to the hotel until 12:30 a.m. (Tuesday morning),” he said. “I was more concerned about that. We were turning around and playing two games in less than 24 hours, so they had a jump on us there.
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“But I did think as we got going there in the second half, I kept telling our guys, particularly offensively, just continue moving,” he added. “It did feel like to me that they looked tired. I’s hard.”
Cleveland State was dealing with mental fatigue as well after winning a double-overtime game against Youngstown State in the season finale before beating the Penguins by one point in the first round. Then the Vikings upset top-seed Northern Kentucky in the quarterfinals before scoring another one-point win against Oakland in the semis.
“How many emotional games did they have,” Nagy said. “I can’t image the emotions they’ve been through the last four or five days. What a great job their coaching staff has done. (Dennis Felton) is such a great coach, and I know they’re proud to have him.”
It’s hard to point to a key play or two in a 17-point victory, but there were a couple that clearly stood out Tuesday night in Wright State’s 74-57 triumph of Cleveland State in the Horizon League tournament championship game.
And they both came from freshman.
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Cleveland State only trailed by five four minutes into the second half, and the Vikings had a chance to get closer when Wright State’s Jaylon Hall’s 3-pointer came up well short. But Hall followed his shot, got the rebound and threw down a dunk to up the lead to 40-33.
That’s how the score stayed until the first media timeout of the second half at 15:01. After the break, Everett Winchester took a pass from Gentry and exploded through the lane, threw the ball down for a score and absorbed a foul that sent him crashing to the floor.
Winchester missed the free throw, but Love, the HL Freshman of the Year, got the rebound and scored on a layup to make it a four-point possession that sparked a 17-6 run that all but put the game away.
After putting six players in double figures for the first time in at least eight seasons in Saturday night’s 87-72 quarterfinal win against Green Bay, Wright State nearly did it again three days later.
Benzinger (19), Gentry (11) and Hall (11) each got there, while Love, Mark Hughes and Parker Ernsthausen each finished with nine points.
In the three tournament games, Wright State held its opponents to 21, 25 and 26 points in the first half on a combined 27 of 83 shooting (32.5 percent), including 9 of 37 (24.3 percent) from 3-point range.
The strong defensive starts enabled the Raiders to take leads into halftime of each of the games against Green Bay (37-21), Milwaukee (27-25) and Cleveland State (34-26).
And that’s significant, because WSU is 18-0 this season when leading at halftime.