When all hope was lost, the Raiders believed. They had been here before, after all.
On the brink of a devastating defeat that would have left it 0-3 on this homestand at the Nutter Center, Wright State showed the poise that has served it so well for most of the season. The Raiders trailed by 13 points with 6:34 to play and then started pressing and raising the intensity, and they rallied to beat Loyola 62-59 on Monday night.
“It’s a big lift,” said junior forward Cole Darling, who led the Raiders with 17 points on 8-of-13 shooting. “We had lost four out of five, and losing four straight wouldn’t be good for us, especially with how tough this league is and how tough it is to win.”
Wright State (15-8, 6-4) moved into a tie with Green Bay for third place in the Horizon League. It plays at Green Bay at 8 p.m. Thursday. Valparaiso (7-2) and Detroit (7-3) aren’t far ahead.
This game was almost a carbon copy for the first game against Loyola in Chicago on Jan. 11. Even the score was almost spot on; the Raiders won the first one 62-61. The Raiders trailed by 10 points at halftime in the first game and by 12 this time.
Wright State coach Billy Donlon took the blame for a first-half game plan that didn’t work out. He said he had to choose between throwing something new at the Ramblers or going with what worked in the first game, and he went with the latter option. Loyola shot 60 percent in the first half, and the Raiders shot 30.
“The first half, we were outclassed because (Loyola coach) Porter Moser and their offensive plan was phenomenal,” Donlon said, “and I didn’t do a very good job. A lot of the lack of defense in the first half, credit Loyola. Guys tell me, ‘Don’t say this,’ but I’m not going to change who I am. I’m just an honest guy. Just like when I played, if a guy beat me up, you just had to take it. A guy outplayed you, and you get another chance at him, and hopefully you outplay him. The first 20 minutes, no blame on my kids because tactically I wasn’t good.”
The Ramblers hit all four of their 3-pointers in the first half. Wright State made 3-of-10, but Donlon wasn’t happy his team took that many 3-pointers because he wants the team getting the ball inside more or driving to the rim.
In the second half, Loyola (13-10, 3-7) extended its lead to 36-22 on a dunk by Christian Thomas in the opening minute. Thomas led Loyola with 13 points.
Wright State got back in it with a 7-0 run, featuring five straight points by AJ Pacher. With 12:02 left, Joe Bramanti’s 3-pointer cut Loyola’s lead to 39-36, and it looked as if the Raiders had put their first-half struggles behind them.
But a 9-0 run from the 11:24 mark to the 7:54 mark gave Loyola a 51-38 lead. It was still a 13-point game with 6:34 left when Wright State started showing some life. The Raiders went on a 12-2 run in the next two and a half minutes.
Loyola took a 59-54 lead on a pair of free throws by Cully Payne with 3:11 left, and the Ramblers didn’t score again.
A three-point play by Bramanti with 2:24 left and two free throws by Miles Dixon with 2:12 to play tied the game. Darling then gave the Raiders their first lead since early in the first half with a hook shot with 1:18 to play. Dixon made 1-of-2 free throws with eight seconds left, and Loyola turned the ball over in the final seconds.
“As I’ve said before, I love these kids,” Wright State coach Billy Donlon said. “If this team doesn’t win, it’s not because they don’t fight or don’t compete.”
Young finished with 11 points. AJ Pacher scored nine and made all four of his free-throw attempts on a night the team struggled as a whole (11-of-19 to Loyola’s 18-of-22). Dixon had eight points.
Kendall Griffin also had eight points and had a career-high seven assists with only one turnover.
“Cole Darling was phenomenal,” Donlon said. “He played like an all-league player. Jerran Young and Joe Bramanti and Miles Dixon in the second half were phenomenal. The guy you’ll forget to talk about because he’s a silent assassin is Kendall Griffin. Just an incredible performance. AJ did a lot of good things for us.”