Some Wright State fans started filing out of the Nutter Center in the final minute Tuesday. They didn’t include the one fan who was escorted out of the arena in the second half for yelling at the officials.
A crowd of 4,301, the second-largest of the season, went home disappointed, and that has become a trend in the second half of the season. A team that started 8-0 at home has lost three of its last four at the Nutter Center.
It’s hard to explain, but at least in this game, a lot of Wright State’s failures had to do with the opponent. First-place Valparaiso played like the defending Horizon League champion and led Wright State from start to finish in a 68-61 victory.
“We love when the Nutter Center is rocking,” said junior forward AJ Pacher, who scored a career-high 23 points. “It’s a great arena. There have been times this year we really haven’t showed them Wright State basketball. I don’t know what it is. We just need to play better.”
Valparaiso (20-6, 10-2) completed a season sweep of the Raiders (17-9, 8-5) and took a big step toward repeating as regular-season champions. Kevin Van Wijk led the Crusaders with 20 points. Matt Kenney scored 15. Ryan Broekhoff added 10.
The Raiders remain in third place, a half game ahead of Green Bay (13-12, 7-5). Pacher and Miles Dixon, with 13 points, were the only Raiders in double figures. Reggie Arceneaux, who didn’t start for the third straight game but played 31 minutes to starter Joe Bramanti’s nine minutes, scored nine. Cole Darling added eight.
Unlike the first game against the Crusaders on Jan. 19, when the Raiders led for most of the way before losing 69-63, Wright State had to play catch-up in this game. The Raiders fell behind by 13 with 2:39 left in the first half but got back in it with a 9-2 run to end the period.
It’s the third time in four games the Raiders have fallen behind by double digits and had to mount a comeback. In their last home game against Loyola on Feb. 4, they rallied from 13 points down with 6:34 to play to win 62-59.
“We can’t just be a team that gets down early every game,” Pacher said. “We’ve got to get off to better starts. Give us credit. We’ve battled back and stayed together, but you can’t do it every game.”
Valparaiso led by as many as 10 early in the second half. The Raiders got within two or three on six different occasions. They just never could get over the hump.
Van Wijk hit two free throws with 9:48 left after a basket by Darling cut Valparaiso’s lead to 51-49. Pacher’s two free throws with 6:11 to play again got the Raiders to within two points, 57-55, but Kenney got to the line on the next possession and sank both free throws with 5:58 left.
Valparaiso hit 18-of-20 free throws, making up for a 4-of-16 performance from long range.
“Valparaiso is a really good team,” Wright State coach Billy Donlon said. “That’s not me lowering our expectations that we shouldn’t win the game. We went to their place, and they beat us in the second half with 3-point shots. They came to our place and were 4-of-16 from the 3, and they just pounded it inside.”
Foul trouble affected the Raiders as well. Tavares Sledge and Jerran Young each had two fouls in the first half, and they played a total of 21 minutes between them with no points.
“It probably was good because AJ played longer in this game,” Donlon said. “There’s no question Tavares and Jerran have both played better games than they did tonight. It is what it is. They’ll play better in the future.”