Loudon Love can’t really explain his forgettable outings in Wright State’s last two road games. He had plenty of good looks but just couldn’t convert, going a combined 8 of 29 from the field.
That slump, however, was short-lived. In back-to-back wins at home last week, he made 15 of 29 shots, including three emphatic dunks — a good sign for the Raiders with the Horizon League race heating up.
“It’s always good to see the big fella playing well,” teammate Mark Hughes said. “When he’s playing well, you can see our team feeds off it.
“No one can stop him inside, so our main focus is to get him the ball and let him do what he does best.”
The Raiders likely will need the 6-foot-9, 280-pound sophomore in top form to prevail when Northern Kentucky visits at 9 p.m. Friday in a game televised on ESPNU.
The Raiders are 15-11 overall and 9-4 in the conference, while the first-place Norse are 20-6, 10-3. The title hunt appears to have become a two-team race since no one else in the league is better than 7-5.
The Raiders are holding a “Blackout Night” at the Nutter Center. Students will get black T-shirts, and fans are encouraged to dress in black. The team also will wear alternative uniforms in that color.
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To coach Scott Nagy, every league game is big. But he said: “Obviously, there’s more weight on this one for sure. Over the last three years since I’ve been here, we’ve played some really good games with them. They’re incredibly well-coached. They’re good defensively. They’re really good offensively.”
Drew McDonald, a 6-8, 250-pound senior, was the preseason player of the year and has lived up to that billing.
He had 22 points and 12 rebounds in a 68-64 home win over Wright State on Jan. 11. He’s third in the league scoring at 19.0 and first in rebounds at 9.9. His 12 double-doubles are the second most in the nation.
“McDonald, in my opinion, is the best player in the league,” Nagy said. “He gives their team a lot of confidence.”
Asked what makes McDonald tough to handle, Love said: “It’s just his versatility, being able to shoot the ball and score around the rim.
“One of the most underrated things is when he misses, he’s able to get his own miss. That’s where a lot of his rebounds come from and what’s made him first team (all-league). I think we’ll be able to shut it down. We did an OK job on him the first time, and we’re playing better now.”
The Raiders, who are rated 150th out of 353 Division-I teams in the NET rankings (NCAA Evaluation Tool), certainly appear to be peaking at the right time. They’ve won six of their last seven games, and their bench has turned into a strength with the emergence of freshman guard Malachi Smith.
He had 14 points and six assists against Detroit on Saturday. He’s averaged 9.3 points in his last eight games while playing at least 20 minutes each time.
Both squads will play the same opponents for their final four games: Youngstown State and Cleveland State at home, Green Bay and Milwaukee on the road.
A win by the Norse (104th in the NET rankings) would give them a two-game lead, plus the tiebreaker over Wright State since they would have swept the season series. If they lose, the teams will have the same league record with four to go.
If they end in a tie with a split of the series, the next tiebreaker would be how the teams fared against the third-place squad.
“It’s going to be a huge game for us in terms of how our season is going to finish,” Hughes said. “If we can win it, we’ve got all the momentum rolling into the final couple games. It’s definitely a big one.”