Wright State coach Scott Nagy was appreciative of the season-high 6,233 fans who flocked to the Nutter Center for the Horizon League showdown with Northern Kentucky on Friday. The “Blackout” promotion was a hit, helping to create a big-game atmosphere.
But he also was leery that his players — who were clad in black alternative uniforms — might be too hyped up and, like a boxer going for a first-round knockout, not have enough energy for the long haul.
That looked to be the case when the Norse jumped out to a 16-point first-half lead.
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“You get so excited, and then the game starts, and you go flat,” he said. “I coached in a game four or five years ago — a big game — where we started out (down) 20-0 at home. But we were ahead by halftime, which might be the most unbelievable thing ever.
“I thought our players did a good job of not panicking. We called that timeout and got them settled down. We got it to five at the half, and we knew it was a game.”
Though they may not have had the pep they needed at the start, the Raiders showed plenty of fight at the finish to pull out a 81-77 win and climb into a first-place tie with NKU with four games to go.
Bill Wampler tossed in a career-high 29 points and Loudon Love had 20 points and 11 rebounds to lead the way.
Wright State, which shot 58.6 percent in the first half and 54.7 overall, has won eight of its last nine games to improve to 16-11 overall and 10-4 in the league. NKU, which shot 61.3 percent in the first half and 50 overall, is 20-7, 10-4.
“In the first half, it was a fun game to watch,” Norse coach John Brannen said. “We didn’t play very well in the second half. Wright State did an outstanding job of keeping us out of the paint. They did a good job of driving the ball. They took advantage of our mistakes.
“They were just the tougher, more-disciplined, better-executing team.”
All-league guard Jalen Tate scored on a drive for a 73-70 lead with 4:45 left, but he was whistled for a technical for celebrating afterward — a key call since it also was Tate’s fifth foul (he played just 15 minutes).
Cole Gentry made one of two free throws on the tech, and Wampler was fouled and made a pair to tie the game with 4:31 left.
Brannen wanted to know why his player was T’d up but couldn’t get an answer from the refs.
“He said something to them, I guess. They didn’t find it important enough to give me an explanation,” he said.
Love broke the tie by scoring over Drew McDonald, who had 23 points and nine rebounds, with 2:01 to go.
NKU’s Dontez Walton made two free throws, but Wampler scored on a put-back for a 77-75 lead at 1:08.
After a defensive stop, Mark Hughes missed a 3, but Love was fouled on the rebound with 23.5 seconds left. McDonald was called for a “hook and hold” — a flagrant 1 foul under a new rule this season — and Love made one of two free throws for a three-point lead while the Raiders kept the ball.
Wampler then made one of two foul shots with 20.1 ticks left to make it 79-75, and the crowd, which was boisterous all night, could really cut loose.
Nagy is cautious. Both teams were 11-2 late last season, but the Raiders finished 3-2 and Norse 4-1 to win the crown.
They have the same four foes left: Cleveland State and Youngstown State at home and Green Bay and Milwaukee on the road.
“Coming off the emotion of this — we’ve seen it before — we need to be very mature,” Nagy said. “When things are going really well, it’s hard to stay humble. And that’s what our guys need to do — stay humble and fight and remember why we’re playing well right now.”
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