The Horizon League standings said there was nothing on the line when Wright State played UIC in the regular-finale Sunday.
Raiders coach Scott Nagy’s fist pump with teeth clenched indicated otherwise.
The emotional display came after the WSU defense, which was torched for 51 first-half points, came up with a key stop with 11 seconds remaining to secure an 88-81 victory before a crowd of 3,091 at the UIC Pavilion.
“It mattered,” said Nagy, whose Raiders were locked in as the No. 2 seed before tip-off after Northern Kentucky clinched the Horizon League championship earlier in the day.
“If we’re going to step on the floor, it’s going to matter,” Nagy added. “We talked about that, make sure we’re not settling. That’s not how we’re going to operate.”
Freshman center Loudon Love had game highs with 23 points and 15 rebounds in addition to a career-high five assists, while senior guard Grant Benzinger scored 21 and freshman forward Everett Winchester posted career highs with 18 points and eight rebounds to help Wright State (22-9 overall, 14-4 HL) rally from a 14-point deficit.
“The way things were going it would have been easy to say it doesn’t make any difference in the standings, let’s just get home, and our guys didn’t,” Nagy said. ” I’m really proud of them.”
It was a homecoming for Love and sophomore guard Cole Gentry, who are from nearby St. Charles, Ill., and had dozens of friends and family members in attendance.
“I’m sure Cole would tell you the same thing, it’s a great feeling to get the win,” Love said. “But a win or a loss, it’s great to see everyone, especially extended family. Especially this game. Knowing Northern Kentucky won, it was a personal thing for us. We wanted to win. We didn’t show it in the first half, but in the second half we came out and showed it.”
UIC (17-14, 12-6) shot 65.6 percent in the first half, including 71.4 percent from 3-point range to build a 51-43 lead. The 51 points were the most allowed by Wright State in any half this season.
But the Raiders held the Flames to 23.1 percent shooting in the second half and took the lead for good on a Mark Hughes 3-pointer with 3:04 remaining.
Hughes also scored six of his 11 points in the first minute of the second half to start the comeback, and Winchester helped WSU pull away late with a jumper for an 84-81 lead with 1:07 to go and another that pushed the advantage to 86-81 with 20 ticks to go.
“We didn’t like how we played defensively in the first half,” Winchester said. “We thought coach was going to really get on us, but he just walked in said ‘You know what you did wrong. You know how to fix it. Now fix it.”
As bad as the defense was in the first half, the Raiders were able to stay within reach thanks to Benzinger (16 points) and Love (15 points).
The Flames put four players in double figures, led by Dikembe Disxon’s 19 points, but after hitting five of their first six 3-pointers, they only made 3 of 12 the rest off the way.
Gentry added six points and a career-high four steals as the Raiders scored 21 points off 19 UIC turnovers.
As the No. 2 seed, Wright State will play at 5:30 p.m. Saturday against the winner of Friday’s opening-round game between No. 7 Green Bay and No. 10 Detroit Mercy.
The Raiders swept both teams during the regular season.
If WSU wins its opener, it will have a bye Sunday before playing in Monday’s semifinals.