Bill Donlon Sr. stopped by the media workroom before the game Wednesday at the Nutter Center to grab his lucky Diet Pepsi.
The Wright State coach’s dad, the director of operations for the program, said he was never a superstitious coach until he started working with this staff. His fellow coaches have turned him into the type of coach who has to have the same drink before every game, whether he’s thirsty or not, and if this game was any indication, Donlon Sr. has a number of lucky Diet Pepsis in front of him.
The Raiders routed Tulsa 72-52 in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational in front of a crowd of 2,507. It’s the first postseason win for the program — not counting conference tournaments — since it moved to Division I in 1987.
“It’s a big win,” said sophomore guard Kendall Griffin, who led the Raiders with 15 points. “That’s why we decided to play in this tournament. We wanted to come in and compete and continue our season. We weren’t done playing basketball.”
Wright State, which also got 14 points from Jerran Young and 12 from Miles Dixon, advances to a second-round game against Richmond at 7 p.m. Monday at the Nutter Center. Richmond (19-14) won 76-71 at Bryant in Smithfield, R.I.
When it accepted a bid to the CBI, Wright State expected to play the second round on the road, but Athletic Director Bob Grant said he found out Wednesday there was an unexpected conflict with the arenas at both Richmond and Bryant. Wright State paid $35,000 to host the first-round game, and the second-round games cost $50,000, according to reports.
Grant said Wright State would work out with the CBI how much they will have to pay in the coming weeks.
The Raiders (22-12) gave the home crowd a show against Tulsa, hitting 7-of-14 three-pointers in the first half for a 32-23 lead. Tulsa shot 28 percent from the field in the first half. Griffin had nine points in the half on 3-of-4 shooting from long range.
“I thought there were some really good shots out there,” coach Billy Donlon said, “even some in the paint we missed. Joe Bramanti had a great drive in the first half, and it seemed like the ball was rattling out.”
A key to Wright State’s offensive success, Donlon said, was it didn’t keep shooting the 3-pointer in the second half. For example, it made 7-of-18 3-pointers in the first half against Detroit on Jan. 30, but then 2-of-16 in the second half. In this game, the Raiders attempted just five 3-pointers in the second half and made two of them.
“We’ve had games where we’ve fallen in love with the 3-point shot,” Donlon said. “We’re a team that has to score the ball in the paint to win consistently, and I thought the guys did a really good job of that.”
The Raiders shot 14-of-24 from inside the arc in the second half.Tulsa (17-16) tied the game four minutes into the second half, but Wright State responded with a 7-0 run in the next two minutes.
Again, Tulsa made a run, cutting the deficit to 45-43 with 12 minutes to play. Wright State responded to that with a 15-5 run to put the game away. Jerran Young had nine of his 14 points during the decisive run, which gave the Raiders a 60-48 lead with 6:31 to play.
“Basically, it was just moving the ball,” Young said, “getting to screens and setting good screens so the guards can come off the screen and attack and dish.”
Young and Miles Dixon, who had 12 points, built off their strong performances in the Horizon League tournament. Each has scored in double figures in three of the last four games.
The only game they didn’t hit double figures was the Horizon League championship game. That 62-54 loss to Valparaiso eight days earlier, in which the Raiders blew a six-point lead with under six minutes to play, will sting Billy Donlon for a long time.
“In life, sometimes you can work really hard for something and not get it,” he said. “It goes that way sometimes. You can pour a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it. Our kids, without question, did that. We didn’t attain our ultimate goal of going to the NCAA tournament. I think it was more heartbreaking for all of us just the way the last four minutes of that game ended. Hopefully, I’m coaching for 50 more years because I’ve got young Irish blood in me, but those four minutes I will remember for a long time.
“It’s not good on the sideline when you’re not able to do anything to help your kids offensively. Our kids struggled, but man that’s a resilient group in there. To come back after not attaining what you want to attain, with all the media hype about the tournament selection, to play with that kind of effort for 40 minutes, is just an incredible statement about the young men in that locker room. That’s why they’re going to have successful lives, and really that’s why you do this.”