The Wright State Raiders won’t have any problem generating some Christmas cheer this season.
Going on the road to face Georgia Tech on Friday, they put together their best performance in two years under coach Scott Nagy and registered one of the biggest wins in their 30-year Division I history, pulling off an 85-81 upset.
They did it with torrid shooting and clutch baskets down the stretch. After trailing by 11 in the first half and by nine at halftime, they connected on 18-of-27 shots in the second half (66.7 percent), including 6-of-9 three-pointers.
The Raiders put five players in double figures in beating a school from a power-five conference for the first time since knocking off No. 8 Michigan State at home on Dec. 30. 1999. They were 1-30 against schools from the Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC since going Division I in 1987.
Grant Benzinger scored a season-high 22 points. Louden Love had 16 points and 12 rebounds. Justin Mitchell and 15 points and 10 boards. And sub Cole Gentry, in his third game with the Raiders, added 12 points, while Mark Hughes had 10.
“We were so bad in the first half. We had no energy. Defensively, there were 34 possessions, and they had 40 points. It wasn’t our offense. Defensively, we were not any good in the first half. We just had no juice to us,” Nagy said.
“I really talked to Grant and Justin at halftime to get us going and both did a great job in the second half. And, obviously, Cole showing up for us … boy, he was good tonight.”
Wright State (8-5) went on a 35-15 run to start the second half, including 11 points in a row from 11:32 to 9:15 to take a stunning 66-55 lead.
The Yellow Jackets (5-6) whittled away at the deficit and then scored seven straight points on five free throws and a put-back by All-ACC center Ben Lammers for a 77-75 lead with 2:38 left.
But Benzinger, standing five feet behind the 3-point arc, fired and connected to give Wright State a 78-77 edge with 2:14 to go.
“That was a big-time 3,” Nagy said.
Georgia Tech had a shot-clock violation. And Benzinger then missed a 3-pointer as the shot clock was winding down, but Mitchell retrieved the rebound, and Gentry delivered a 3-pointer with 1:06 left for an 81-77 lead.
After a turnover, Mitchell made one of two foul shots for a 82-77 edge with 47 seconds left. The Yellow Jackets then cut the deficit to two, and Louden Love, a 40-percent free-throw shooter, was fouled with 12 seconds left. He made one of two for an 84-81 edge.
With a chance to tie, Georgia Tech freshman Jose Alvarado’s 3-pointer rimmed out, and Mitchell made the second of two foul shots with 5.9 seconds to go to seal the victory.
For Nagy, the difference was defense.
“In my opinion, we weren’t guarding like we can guard (in the first half),” Nagy said. “I told Justin, ‘You and Mark are the best defensive players I’ve had, and you’ve got to start playing like it.’”
Nagy’s 23-year coaching philosophy has been to play non-conference games near Christmas on the road, counting on a crowd without students and opposing players who are already thinking about going home for their holiday break. That might have been the case with Georgia Tech.
“It takes me more than one hand to count the number of high-major wins we’ve gotten right before Christmas,” Nagy said. “I’ll tell you, those kids come with their bags packed.”
But the Raiders certainly weren’t handed the win. They earned it.
“We ran the floor very well,” Nagy said. “Justin went down the floor once, and they didn’t even know he was there, and he shot a layup.
“It just helps to have Cole. Everett (Winchester) wasn’t feeling very good, so we couldn’t play him very many minutes, but we’re deeper now and we can play faster.
“The kids fought hard. … This is a good win for our program.”
UIC at Wright State, 7 p.m., ESPN3, 106.5