Tom Archdeacon: Wright State guard fights through injuries

As the final seconds were ticking off Wright State’s 79-60 victory over Green Bay on Saturday night at the Nutter Center, Raiders backup guard Justin Mitchell dribbled the ball across the midcourt line with one hand and raised the other to the crowd and waved for everyone to give him and his teammates some applause, some appreciation … some love.

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At the buzzer, Mitchell flipped the ball in the direction of a ref and headed to the WSU bench where one joyous teammate after another gave him a hug, shared a laugh and celebrated both his solid night — a season-high 10 points to go with four rebounds, two steals and an assist — and the fact that the Raiders have now won 12 of their last 15 games.

The universal embrace was something Mitchell hasn’t always experienced this season.

He said his teammates also have given him a concussion, a broken nose and a sprained ankle.

The strained back he suffered a couple of weeks ago he did without their help. That came while trying a dunk in practice.

The 6-foot-3 sophomore from Fort Wayne has missed eight games this season and played seven minutes or fewer in four others.

He skipped the season opener against South Dakota to bury his grandfather and the rest of the absences have been due to injury.

“You name it,” he said with a grin at the postgame press conference when asked what all he had hurt this season.

In private later, he got more specific.

“At the start of the year I got a concussion in practice when I ran into Rod Davis,” he said of his 6-foot-9, 230-pound teammate.

“Another time in practice I ended up breaking my nose when Mark Hughes went for the steal,” he said of his fellow Raider guard. “I had to wear a mask after that.

“Then I sprained my ankle when I stepped on Mark Hughes’ shoe.

“My strained back, though, that was just me.”

The injuries, the return of veteran players who had been injured last season and the additions of older transfers Mark Alstork and Biggie Minnis have drastically changed Mitchell’s season this year compared to last.

When he came here last year out of Wayne High School in Fort Wayne — where he had been a high-scoring first-team all-state selection who had turned down scholarship offers to Ball State, IUPUI, Loyola and Gardner Webb — he got considerable playing time and even started 12 of 28 games.

“I told all those players who had played a lot of minutes as freshmen that next year the older guys will be back and they’ll be playing,” coach Billy Donlon said.

“The thing is you don’t win with sophomores in this league. That’s very rare.”

He told his younger guys they had to accept their new roles — and what may well be less playing time — and concentrate on winning as a team.

He said Mitchell made that transition as well as could be expected, but “the injuries really took a toll.”

Mitchell has averaged three fewer minutes a game this season compared to last (17 to 14), has scored about two points fewer a game and his shooting accuracy went from 46.9 percent last season to 36.8 this year.

“It’s been difficult, but Coach (Scott) Woods has talked to me and helped me through it,” Mitchell said. “He said to concentrate on the winning and I am. Winning is all that matters.”

It helps that the WSU coaches had gotten the seal of approval from Mitchell’s mentor, former WSU star Vernard Hollins, before he came here.

Over the years Fort Wayne has given Wright State some legendary basketball players.

One — Dr. Alan McGee — was honored Saturday night as part of the 1975-76 team, the school’s first to go to the NCAA Division II tournament. McGee graduated from WSU summa cum laude and now is an orthopedic surgeon in Fort Wayne.

Keion Brooks, another Fort Wayne product, played for the Raiders from 1996-99 and ended up the program’s fourth- leading scorer with 1,766 points.

Then came Hollins, who played from 2001-04 and is the fifth-leading career scorer at WSU with 1,700 points.

Hollins has been a friend of Mitchell’s dad and then trained Justin before he came to WSU. And Mitchell played with Brooks’ oldest son in high school.

“Keion stays in touch with us and sends us texts about players, but with Justin it was Vernard,” Donlon said.

“Vernard was still playing professionally in Europe then, I believe, but he came along on Justin’s visit and sold him on the place. Vernard really wants to be involved in the program — he has a lot of pride in Wright State University — and he passed that on to Justin.

“The biggest thing he did was vouch for the coaches here. And that was big.”

Hollins told Mitchell that WSU was a good place for him, that he could make a real impact here.

He did not tell him that impact might come with a broken nose, a sprained foot and a concussion.

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