Wright State said goodbye to seniors Grant Benzinger and Trey Stacey on Monday night.
The Raiders can only hope the game marked a final farewell in 2018 to Cleveland State, a struggling group that looked for most of the night as though it was going to pull off a second consecutive upset against the Horizon League’s top team.
Despite playing without freshman point guard and second leading scorer Tyree Appleby, CSU built an eight-point lead in the second half before the Wright State defense took over and cleared the way for a 72-63 victory.
“The guys on our team, I have so much belief in them to step up in the big moments, and I think everyone did,” said Benzinger, who scored a game-high 20 points in his final game at the Nutter Center.
The win kept the Raiders (21-8 overall, 13-3 HL) tied for first-place with Northern Kentucky, which beat Youngstown State, which means the regular-season championship will come down to the final weekend.
Mark Hughes scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half to help spark the comeback, while Loudon Love added 15 points and Parker Ernsthausen notched 10, all in the first half.
But Benziniger, who was playing before 40 family members and friends, including the coaching staff from his alma mater at Moeller High School, was the catalyst.
In addition to sharing team-high rebound honors with Love and Hughes at six apiece, Benzinger tied his career-high with five assists while knocking down 5 of 10 3-pointers, one shy of his career high.
“It was nice to see him knock some 3s down,” WSU coach Scott Nagy said. “I feel like he’s struggled a little bit. Every night people stick to him. We don’t have a superstar. He’s viewed as our superstar, and everybody tries to make our freshmen and younger guys beat them.”
The Vikings (8-22, 5-12 HL) hit 1o of their first 20 3-pointers after knocking down a school record-tying 14 in a 77-74 upset of the Raiders on Feb. 1.
CSU took a 59-57 lead with 8:56 remaining on a tip-in by Jamarcus Hairston, but Benzinger’s fourth trey of the night gave Wright State the lead for good.
The Vikings not only failed to make a field goal over the final 8:56, they only managed six shots.
“It took us about 25 minutes into the game before we really started playing at the level we should play at, in terms of how hard we want our kids to play,” Nagy said. “We didn’t change anything. We didn’t change how we were supposed to guard. None of that stuff. Our kids just started playing at the level they’re supposed to play at.”
The go-ahead 3-pointer by Benzinger with 8:05 remaining started a 14-0 run that didn’t end until Cleveland State’s Anthony Wright hit a field goal with 1:34 to go.
Benzinger had two 3-pointers during the run and a pair of assists to Everett Winchester for easy layups, while Hughes went 4 of 4 from the free throw line.
“Coach Nagy was talking about making it a good Senior Night for Trey and Grant, especially after (CSU) beat us the first time,” Hughes said. “Grant means a lot to us, and we just wanted to end his career at the Nutter Center the right way.”
The victory sets up a showdown weekend with UIC, which sits just one game back of WSU and NKU in third place, playing host to the Norse on Friday and the Raiders on Sunday.
But first Wright State will play at IUPUI at 11 a.m. Friday.