The victory meant nothing in terms of the upcoming Horizon League tournament, but don’t tell Wright State University basketball coach Billy Donlon it wasn’t huge.
The visiting Raiders ended the regular season Saturday afternoon by gutting out a 55-51 triumph over Cleveland State at Quicken Loans Arena, pushing WSU into a second-place tie with Oakland in the league standings.
Wright State, 11-20 last season, improved to 19-12 overall and 13-5 in the league.
“I’m just happy for the players,” Donlon said. “When you coach, you understand the ups and downs of coaching, but there’s a lot of guys in that locker room that went through — from a basketball standpoint — a hellacious time, and to no fault of theirs.
“Normally the great thing about sports is it holds you accountable. When you step out on a floor, your socioeconomic status doesn’t matter. Your race doesn’t matter. Your religion doesn’t matter. What matters is how you play. If you win, you deserve a lot of the credit. And when you don’t, you deserve to hold yourself accountable.
“Last year’s team … it was really hard to say that. But these guys worked so hard. They deserve to feel good. Yes, we want to win the league. But if you can’t win the league, the next-best thing is to finish second, and that’s what we did. We finished second, and the top three teams were 2-2 against each other.”
Valparaiso won the regular-season title and is the team to beat heading into the league tournament, which begins next Saturday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Oakland will be the No. 2 seed because it swept the Raiders this season, and the top two seeds get double byes into the semifinals. WSU will be No. 3.
Wright State will play either Cleveland State or Illinois Chicago in a 5 p.m. opener. If UIC wins at Milwaukee on Sunday, the Raiders will play CSU in the first round. If UIC loses Sunday, the Raiders and Flames will square off in the tournament.
“We’re a good team, and we’re going to go into the tournament guns blazing,” WSU senior center Michael Karena said. “We’re going to prepare for this and focus on our first game, then get a second win, a third win and a fourth win, and then the NCAA Tournament. That’s how it goes for us now.”
Karena tallied 18 points and Biggie Minnis added 11 against CSU, helping Wright State complete a two-game road sweep in the last three days. Karena had a career-high 26 points Thursday at Youngstown State.
The Raiders beat Cleveland State the hard way. They overcame 37-percent shooting, a 15-of-26 effort at the charity stripe and a 44-27 rebounding deficit, nearly squandering a 15-point lead in the last six minutes.
The Vikings (9-22, 4-14) dropped the margin to 53-51 on Rob Edwards’ four-point play with 16.9 seconds left. Mark Alstork responded with two free throws for WSU with 6.8 on the clock.
Alstork, shooting 69.8 percent from the line entering Saturday’s contest, had made only 2 of 8 free throws before sinking the game clinchers.
“I was in my own head after missing the first one,” Alstork said. “I had to clear everything that happened earlier in the game and just make these two for the team. I wanted to be the one to take the shots, and the coaches and players gave me confidence that I was going to make both of them.”
Edwards (20) and Kenny Carpenter (13) led Cleveland State’s scoring.