As disappointing as it was for Wright State to fall out of first place for the first time with a 74-73 loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, things could have been worse last week.
Two days prior the Raiders had to rally from 11 down against Wisconsin-Green Bay, and they needed a huge play from freshman Jaylon Hall in the final seconds to close out a 68-64 win.
The Phoenix were down by two points and had a chance to tie or win the game on their final possession, but Hall anticipated a dribble handoff, beat his man to the exchange point and stole the ball and drew a foul with 5.5 seconds to go. Then he made both free throws to ice the win.
“At the end of the game when it’s close, some guys on defense kind of get tentative and don’t want to foul,” WSU senior guard Grant Benzinger said. “But (Hall) was the aggressor and came up with a huge steal, got fouled and put the game to four points. That was the biggest play of the game.”
Hall, a 6-foot-6, 175-pound guard averaging 9.6 points and 2.6 rebounds, has been making a lot of plays like that recently as he continues to grow into his role and earn more playing time.
After playing a career-high 33 minutes Feb. 3 at Youngstown State, Hall logged 31 minutes (his second most) against Green Bay and 28 vs. Milwaukee.
“I’ve always felt comfortable since I got here, especially on the floor,” he said. “I don’t really feel pressure out there. Especially now, I feel tournament ready. I’m just going to continue to do things that my team needs me to do to get a win.”
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A Houston native, Hall moved to Louisville prior to his freshman year in high school to play for his uncle and Doss High School coach Tony Williams, so he already had experience living away from home when he arrived on campus and began taking classes in June.
Unlike fellow freshmen Loudon Love and Everett Winchester, who had redshirt seasons in 2016-17 to get acclimated to the demands on college ball and academics, Hall needed to jump right into the fray due to the team’s lack of depth.
And he’s shown steady improvement since.
“I think he’s come a long way from the beginning of the season,” junior guard Mark Hughes said. “You can tell he’s really maturing and starting to make the right plays. He’s made some big plays for us. We need him. He’s definitely stepping up and doing a really good job for us.”
Hall had 16 points, one shy of his career high, against YSU and Green Bay. And he’s scored in double digits in seven of the last night games after doing it only six times through the first 16 contests he played.
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“I felt like Jaylon was the one that was going to get better as the year went along, that he was the one who was going to make the biggest improvement,” WSU coach Scott Nagy said. “Early in the year we weren’t even playing him, and now he plays 30-some minutes and makes some huge plays for us.”
Like the one Thursday night, many of them have come on the defensive side of the ball.
“Jaylon’s one of our best defenders,” Nagy said. “The thing he lacks right now, that he’ll get, is strength. That’s a big reason why we wanted to redshirt him but we just couldn’t because of depth.
“But he’s a great defender,” Nagy continued. “Jaylon’s so quick. At his height at 6-6, he’s just incredibly quick and he made a great play (at the end of the Green Bay game).”
That wasn’t the only big play Hall made in that game, as he added two other steals, two assists and rebounds.
What made the performance so impressive is that most of his key plays came after a dreadful first half that saw him commit four turnovers while missing all three of his 3-point attempts.
“Once that buzzer hit for halftime, that half is over with,” he said. “That half was in the past. My teammates picked me up, the coaches picked me up. I knew there was another half of basketball to be played.”
Nagy was quick to point out in his postgame press conference how impressed he was with Hall’s ability to bounce back.
“I’m just proud of him for fighting through and not giving in to despair,” he said. “Because sometimes that happens. Things aren’t going well and you just kind of give in. And he didn’t.”
Hall and the Raiders will need to follow that same script at 9 p.m. Friday when they try to rebound from the Milwaukee loss against first-place Northern Kentucky at the Nutter Center.
A would move WSU back into a first-place tie and give the the Raiders the tiebreaker edge via a season sweep after beating the Norse 84-81 at NKU on Jan. 11.
Northern Kentucky at Wright State, 9 p.m., ESPNU, 106.5