Wright State lost sole possession of first place in the Horizon League with a 77-74 loss at Cleveland State on Thursday, but the Raiders still control their own destiny for a regular-season title after walloping Youngstown State 83-57 on Saturday.
WSU (18-7, 10-2 HL) is tied with Northern Kentucky, but the Raiders already own one victory against the Norse and can complete the season sweep Feb. 16 at the Nutter Center.
Here are five things to know about Wright State’s weekend in Northeast Ohio:
The biggest challenge facing the Raiders the last two games was not having freshman forward Everett Winchester, who suffered a head injury the previous weekend.
That further restricted an already thin rotation for coach Scott Nagy.
Junior guard Tye Wilburn, who had played a combined 30 minutes in the last 14 games, logged 29 minutes this weekend.
After going scoreless with one rebound in 14 minutes at CSU, Wilburn came up big at YSU with a career-high five assists, two steals, four points and just one turnover in 15 minutes.
“It was a tough weekend without Everett, but Tye gave us great minutes,” Nagy said.
Wilburn fueled a key stretch in the second half after the Penguins had cut a 22-point lead to 14. When freshman Jaylon Hall lost possession on a collision near the free-throw line, Wilburn swooped in to corral the loose ball and took it to the rim for a layup. Then he prevented a fast break at the other end with a leaping steal of a long pass, pushed the ball up the court and found Mark Hughes for a wide-open 3-pointer to push the lead back to 19.
The 3-pointer Hughes hit off Wilburn’s assist was one of a career-high five the Youngstown native knocked down with close to 50 family and friends looking on at the Beeghly Center.
Hughes, who set a career-high with seven assists in the Cleveland State loss, scored 15 points in his return home.
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“I just love coming back to this city and playing in front of my hometown crowd,” he said. “I definitely was a little more focused. I wanted to play well for my family and friends. I think I did a pretty good job today.”
Hughes’ mom provided the team with a few dozen donuts to celebrate the win with on the drive back to campus late Saturday night.
Knowing the Raiders were thin without Winchester, Youngstown State brought full-court pressure from the jump Saturday night.
WSU struggled with it at first, committing four turnovers in the first four minutes, but once the Raiders settled in they appeared to feed off the pressure rather than tire from it as they repeatedly beat the Penguins up the floor for some easy layups and open looks on the perimeter.
“We figured they’d press us,” said sophomore point guard Cole Gentry, who hit 8 of 13 shots and scored a game-high 21 points. “We didn’t handle it real well at first. We just needed to settle down a little bit.
“There were a lot of emotions,” he added. “We knew Mark was coming home and it was big game for him and we all wanted to play well for him.”
Saturday’s win ran the Raiders’ fifth in a row following a loss. Wright State hasn’t lost back-to-back road games since starting the season 0-3.
“It’s never easy to watch the film after you lose,” Gentry said. “But we watch it and we learn from it and we make sure we come out ready for the next game.”
The CSU loss was especially tough to take, not only because the Vikings are in last place, but because of the lethargic effort the Raiders showed for most of the first half.
“Every guy had to look himself in the mirror after that,” Gentry said. “It wasn’t one guy, it was the whole team. We all let each other down in different ways because we didn’t play good defense and we weren’t ready to play.”
Not only is WSU 5-0 in its last five games after a loss, it has an average margin of victory of 25.2 points.
“I think it says a lot about their belief, more so than their resolve,” Nagy said. “Early in the year, I don’t think they saw it the way I saw it, how good they could be. And we played like it. We played like we didn’t believe. I think they believe now.
“I’m so happy with our guys,” he added. “These are great kids, and they’re giving us everything they have.”
Wright State has six games remaining in the regular season, the first four of which will be at home, where they are 10-1 this season.
The Raiders will play host to Wisconsin-Green Bay on Thursday before facing Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the team that handed them their other league loss, on Saturday night. After that will be the big game against NKU, which will tip at 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, and air on ESPNU.
But as big as that game will be, the regular-season title may not be decided until the final game of the league slate, which will feature WSU at Illinois-Chicago on Sunday, Feb. 26. It’s a 6 p.m. tip, and the only other game that day will be NKU at IUPUI at 1 p.m.
UIC has won five in a row and is just one game behind Wright State and NKU.