Minutes after Wright State had handed Northern Kentucky control of the Horizon League race with a 66-56 loss at IUPUIon Friday, Raiders senior Grant Benzinger emerged from a quiet visitors locker room at Indiana Famers Coliseum and said he was disappointed by, but not dwelling on the defeat.
“It’s on to Sunday,” he said.
That’s when Wright State (21-9, 13-4 HL) will play at UIC (17-13, 12-5) in the regular-season finale.
The game could mean everything when it tips off at 6 p.m. Or it could mean nothing, at least in terms of the HL standings.
If NKU, which beat UIC 79-72 Friday night to take over sole possession of first place, can win at IUPUI earlier Sunday afternoon, the Norse will win the regular-season championship and No. 1 seed for the conference tournament while locking WSU in at No. 2 and UIC at No. 3 few hours before the Raiders and Flames tip-off.
But if IUPUI can pull off its second upset in three days and defeat NKU, Benzinger and his Wright State teammates will be playing for the program’s first regular-season championship in 11 years.
“I’m not going to lie, we all want to win the regular season, but what you really want is to win the conference tournament,” Benzinger said. “You lose a game here (at IUPUI), it sucks, but it’s not the end of the world because there’s still a chance out there.”
As one of two seniors whose days as a college basketball player are dwindling, Benzinger said his mission between Friday’s loss and Sunday’s tip would be to convince his younger teammates this could be it for them as well, that nothing is guaranteed down the road.
“I don’t think they realize this could be their only year,” he said. “Injuries could play a part in it. Guys transferring. Whatever. This could be the only year you have a chance to go to the tournament. Don’t take this opportunity for granted. Seize this opportunity.”
The Flames are coming off a disappointing loss of their own. After trailing by 16 late in the first half, UIC rallied to tie it with less than six minutes to go.
A win would have created a three-way tie for first heading into the final day of the regular season.
The Flames enter the final with nine wins in their last 11 games and, similar to the Raiders, a young roster that could have them near the top of the HL standings for the next few years (although sophomore forward and leading scorer Dikembe Dixson announced on Instagram on Friday that Sunday would be his final home game at UIC because he is “deciding to take my talent elsewhere”).
“They’re the most talented team in the league,” WSU coach Scott Nagy said. “There’s no question in my mind. Everybody’s struggled with them ever since they lost the two games on the road.
“Everybody’s playing them differently,” he added. “Some teams are zoning them because they can’t guard them. We certainly won’t do that. We don’t zone. But it’s going to be a challenge. We really don’t have good matchups at almost any spot.”
By being locked in as either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, WSU will open HL tournament play Saturday in Detroit and will play either the 7, 8, 9 or 10 seed depending on which two advance from Friday’s opening round.