As Cole Gentry was dribbling out the clock Tuesday night on the victory that would send Wright State to the NCAA Tournament, Trey Stacey – the senior walk-on who had just gotten in the game 30 seconds earlier – closed in on him quickly and all but demanded:
“I need that ball!”
On the bench, starters Grant Benzinger and Parker Ernsthausem were smiling. They knew what was about to happen.
The two of them and Stacey had been on the Wright State team two years ago that lost to Green Bay in the finals of this same Horizon League Tournament.
After winning three games in three days that year, they had run out gas the next night and the 78-69 loss had kept them from getting the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
At the end of that game Green Bay’s 6-foot-10 Kerem Kanter – who since transferred to Xavier – took the basketball and hurled it toward the upper reaches of Joe Louis Arena.
“That was hard to see,” Stacey said. “It really stuck in my mind and we all talked about it the past couple of years.”
Benzinger grinned: “Yeah it (ticked) us off. He must have tossed that ball into the 50th row.”
“Over the years we kind of exaggerated it,” admitted Ernsthausen. “It was like, ‘Oh, he threw it to the 65th row!’ He really didn’t throw it that far but it became a running joke.”
Stacey said the trio vowed to one day take back that moment with a victory toss of their own.
And so Tuesday night, as Wright State surged past Cleveland State, 74-57, at Little Caesars Arena, Stacey knew what he had to do.
He took the ball and a second before the final buzzer, he heaved it toward the heavens, right up through the open part of the jumbo overhead scoreboard.
“It almost went to the rafters,” Benzinger exaggerated.
“It was awesome,” Stacey gushed.
Actually the whole night and much of this season has been awesome for the 25-9 Raiders. That’s the most victories they’ve ever had as a Division I program and this trip to the NCAA Tournament will be only their third since they moved up to D-I status 32 seasons ago.
Led by Bill Edwards, Mike Nahar and Mark Woods, the Ralph Underhill coached Raiders went in 1993 as a 16th seed. In 2007 – with DaShaun Wood, who sat courtside at Tuesday’s game, as the star and Brad Brownell, the coach – they were a 14 seed.
But neither of those teams had to endure what this one did.
The older players experienced a coaching change when Billy Donlon was replaced by Scott Nagy. The school has endured some major financial cutbacks. And this season the team lost several good players for a variety of reasons.
Promising 6-foot-7 forward Ryan Custer suffered a spinal cord injury while jumping into a makeshift pool at a party in Oxford last spring. He was left paralyzed from chest down and spent Tuesday night in his wheelchair at the far end of the Raiders bench.
Senior Justin Mitchell, a standout player last season, left the team after 16 games this season. Leading scorer last year, Mark Alstork, graduated and decided to transfer to Illinois for his final year. And a freshman recruit decided to forgo basketball at WSU.
“They’ve faced more adversity than they should have,” athletic director Bob Grant said. “It’s been a difficult two years, but they came through it with flying colors and this is really good for Wright State.”
Tuesday night – as the team stood on a spotlighted stage at center court and was awarded the trophy while confetti rained down and the arena filled with Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” – some of the former players at the game reveled in the moment.
“Anytime your alma mater wins, it’s great to be a part of that legacy,” said Mark Starkey, who played for WSU from 2002-04 and now lives in Seattle and Vancouver while running a social media agency connected to Nike. “We were the building blocks and these guys are the building. We are so proud to see this happen for our school.”
Mark Vest, a 1980s All-American at WSU who now has a son, Alan, on the team, just beamed: “After being around the program almost 40 years, the pride is unbelievable.”
Meanwhile, Jim Brown, the longtime Wright State coach and now the Raiders radio color commentator, stood off to the side and quietly wept
‘A big part of this team’
With 75 seconds left in Tuesday’s game, the contingent of Wright State students at the game began to chant: “Let’s go dancing!… Let’s go dancing!”
When the game ended and the Raiders players congregated in a joyous scrum in front of the scorer’s table, Ernsthausen quickly bee-lined to the bench, got behind Custer’s wheelchair and pushed him toward his teammates so he could go through the handshake line with them.
“Ryan’s a big part of this team,” Ernsthausen explained. “I just wanted him to be part of the moment. We love him and he loves us.”
You saw that love as the Raiders players congregated around Custer, fitted him with a black championship cap and then mugged with him for the cameras.
“This is his first road trip with us since he got hurt,” Raiders center Loudon Love said. “It’s the first time we ever had a bus where we were able to get his chair inside and then lock it in the back so he could ride along.
“It’s been great and a lot of the credit goes to him. He’s got the toughest job every day. He could have started on this team and now he stays positive and motivates us and makes us believe we can do it.
“That’s why right after the incident all of us were in Cincinnati and we got his No. 33 tattooed on us in Roman numerals (XXXIII). We put the word “Believe” in the middle of it.
Love pulled up his shirt and showed the tattoo he has across his shoulder blade.
And believe is what the team had to do after it started the season 0-3.
Part of the reason, Nagy said, was that Benzinger missed the entire preseason recovering from a hernia surgery:
“He wasn’t in practice and he changes the level of practice and the expectations.”
Nagy kept repeating the “Believe” manta and soon the team was 4-4 and then Gentry – after sitting out since midseason last year to adhere to NCAA transfer rules – was able to play and the team began to prosper.
It’s 14 conference wins were the most ever at WSU and then came the two tournament victories over Green Bay and Milwaukee that set up the title game against No. 8 seed Cleveland State, which had upset No.1 Northern Kentucky,
And that brought Benzinger back to that loss in the finals two years ago.
“I told (Assistant) Coach (Nick) Goff when he got here, ‘If we get to the championship game again, I won’t let us lose again.’
“Getting here and not winning it and watching Green Bay celebrate was the worst feeling in the world.”
And he lived up to that promise Tuesday night. He led the Raiders with a game-high 19 points, nine rebounds and three steals.
He was named the MVP of the tournament.
‘Biggest goal of my whole basketball career’
Many of the WSU players said they have dreamed of playing in the NCAA Tournament since they were young.
“As a little kid I always watched ‘One Shining Moment,’” Benzinger said. “I remember seeing Bryce Drew hit the three that make Valpo win its first tournament game and how he and his dad hugged.”
Gentry said since he was five years old, “all I ever wanted to do was play in the NCAA tournament. It’s been the biggest goal of my whole basketball career.”
He did go to the tournament in 2016 as a non-dressing redshirt with the last South Dakota State team Nagy coached before taking the Raiders job.
Nagy was hired at WSU, in part, because he had taken three teams to the NCAA Tournament in his last five years at SDSU.
Benzinger said the team will draw on that knowledge this time: “Coach knows what to do once you get there and we’ll follow his lead.”
Getting them “gathered,” as Nagy put it, will be one of his first chores.
“They’ll walk around for four or five days now before Selection Sunday and everybody will give them pats on the back and tell them how great they are,” he smiled. “They’ll feel more important than they really are.
“My job is to bring them back to earth and then get them to believe this can really happen. I don’t know what our seed will be, but it be pretty high and we’ll likely play a team that is one of the top 9 to 12 teams in the country.
“But I’ve watched it happen and seen teams at our level do it. I’ll need to convince these guys. I’ll need them to believe.”
And to help with that, each of them can check their own “Believe” tattoo they got in Custer’s honor.
Or they can just remember Stacey calling for the ball Tuesday night and then heaving it to the heavens in victory.