The Wisconsin-Milwaukee men’s basketball team met the challenge of playing for a Horizon League championship against Wright State’s top-ranked defense in a hostile, rollicking Nutter Center with a shrug.
And then a slug.
Underdogs for the third game in a row, the fifth-seeded Panthers hit five of their first six shots and seven of nine to spurt out to a 14-point lead 10 minutes into the game and then held off repeated charges by the Raiders in the second half to capture the HL championship in wire-to-wire fashion with a 69-63 victory.
“We knew coming into an atmosphere like this with a great team on the other end we had to come out and get the first punch,” said Milwaukee senior guard Jordan Aaron, who scored 18 points and was voted tournament MVP.
Kyle Kelm added a game-high 20 points and Austin Arians scored 12 for the Panthers (21-13), who advance to their fourth NCAA tournament.
Milwaukee becomes the first No. 5 seed to win the HL championship as well as the first team in league history to win four tournament games after knocking off No. 6 Detroit in the first round, No. 4 Valparaiso in the quarters and No. 1 Wisconsin-Green Bay in the semifinals.
“Their toughness and their resiliency is a great credit to those kids and Rob Jeter and that coaching staff,” said WSU coach Billy Donlon, whose third-seeded Raiders (20-14) lost in the championship game for the second year in a row and now must wait to see if an invitation will come from another postseason tournament.
“To go into Green Bay and win and come here and win, that’s just a phenomenal job,” Donlon added.
After falling in the early 14-point hole, Wright State made several runs, but the Panthers used clutch 3-point shooting to keep the Raiders from getting any closer than four the rest of the way.
Milwaukee finished 9 of 18 (50 percent) from 3-point range compared with 13 of 39 (33 percent) inside the arc.
“The key was the timing of the 3s,” Jeter said. “They tried to speed us up, go full-court pressure and we made the extra pass and got those 3s. Normally a team gets tentative with a lead and says let’s run some clock, but the guys were very aggressive. Every time they pressured us we seemed to get a 3 on the back side, and that really deflated them.”
Down 10 at halftime, Wright State got as close as four twice in the second half and five once. But each time Milwaukee had an answer.
“We kept scratching at the lead in the second half and just couldn’t get over the hump,” Raiders senior guard Matt Vest said. “Credit Milwaukee. They deserved to win.”
Senior forward AJ Pacher led Wright State with 16 points, while Vest added 11 and senior forward Jerran Young marked seven points and a team-high seven rebounds.
Pacher and senior guard Miles Dixon made the all-tournament team, while the other three spots went to Milwaukee’s Matt Tiby, Kelm and Aaron.
“I want to thank my seniors,” Donlon said of Vest, Pacher, Dixon, Young and Cole Darling. “This is the first time in the school’s history we’ve ever been to back-to-back championship games. These 80 mintues don’t define them. Their ability to get to this point has been remarkable, and they should be commended and congratulated.”