Archdeacon: Team-first Raiders on the brink of NCAA Tournament

It was almost midnight and with his Wright State team feeling good, but tired, Scott Nagy poured his heart out a little more than usual.

“For this group – for all the losses we endured in the past year in terms of players and what happened to Ryan (Custer) – for all this group has done, it’s extraordinary,” the Wright State coach said.

“Honestly, at times I can’t believe what they’ve done. It’s just a great definition of a team.”

RELATED: 5 takeaways from WSU win over Milwaukee

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Wright State had just outlasted Milwaukee, 59-53, at Little Caesars Arena in a late-starting, low-scoring, very physical Horizon League Tournament semifinal that, in Nagy’s words, was like “a good, old fashioned rock fight.

“I can’t imagine ESPN loved that game much. The view-ability was a tough deal.”

But as the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Wright State has to like the looks of things going into tonight’s Horizon League title game against Cleveland State.

The Vikings are the tournament’s No. 8 seed, they have a 12-22 record and they have just played three games in four days.

After edging Youngstown State, 72-71, Friday, they upset No. 1 seed Northern Kentucky on Saturday, 89-80, and then came from 12 points down to slip past Oakland 44-43 on Monday night.

Meanwhile, Wright State is 24-9. That’s the most victories a Raiders team has had since becoming a Division I program 32 seasons ago.

And now they are just 40 minutes away from a bid to the NCAA Tournament, something only two other Division I teams at Wright State — the 1993 and 2007 Raiders — have done.

“Certainly what we came for is the game tomorrow,” Nagy said after Monday night’s semifinal. “But I’m proud of our guys and what they’ve accomplished this year. They’ve done an unbelievable job.”

Loudon Love, the Raiders 6-foot-9 freshman center, considered that job as he stood in a hallway of the NBA Arena, an ice bag strapped to his right elbow. He said it had “swollen up” a little after he had dived for a loose ball out of bounds and crash landed his 275-pound frame on the court.

“That dive didn’t mean much,” he said. “I was out of bounds, but mentality-wise it was a burst for our team.”

The team has had quite a few of bursts this season and are better than the preseason poll — voted on by league coaches, sports information directors at the schools and select media — who picked them to finish fifth in the league.

The Raiders ended league play 14-4 and finished the regular season second to Northern Kentucky.

“People say we’re ahead of schedule,” Love said. “But we’ve got good senior leadership and junior leadership. They were in the title game a couple of years ago., so it’s good for them to be back.”

While Love deferred to the upperclassmen, Nagy made note of the team’s freshmen, three of whom are integral parts of the seven-man rotation.

Two of them led the way against Milwaukee.

Love – the Horizon League’s Freshman of the Year – finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Jaylon Hall came off the bench and had 12 points.

“To have our two leading scorers in a game like this be freshman,” Nagy said shaking his head. “We’ve been riding those freshmen all season.

It was a necessity because, like Nagy said, the team lost several players who could have been on the roster this season.

Mark Alstork graduated and decided to transfer and use his last year of eligibility at Illinois. Tyler Mitchell, a freshman recruit from Kings High School, never suited up, instead asking Nagy for time to be away from the program.

Justin Mitchell, a senior guard and team captain who was No. 2 in the Horizon League in rebounds last season, fifth in assists, eighth in field-goal percentage, 19th in steals and 21st in scoring, played 16 games this season, started 14 games and then left the team.

And Ryan Custer, a 6-foot-7 freshman last year who showed real promise at the end of the season, was lost in a freak accident last spring when he jumped into a makeshift pool at a party in Oxford and suffered a severe spinal cord injury. He’s paralyzed from the chest down and spent Monday night in his wheelchair at the end of the WSU bench.

Each player who came out of the game walked down the line of seated players and fist bumped them. The last exchange always was with Custer.

Mike La Tulip, who played for the Raiders last season as a grad student transfer, sits next to Custer at many WSU games. He recently talked to me about what the injured big man’s presence does to his teammates:

“Maybe you’re having a bad game, you missed a couple of shots. But then you come down that line and you see Ryan — and I’d say there’s a 99 percent success rate — guys are taken away from the moment. They’re brought back to earth. They see how he’s handling a situation with no excuses. He’s there for them. And almost all of them end up with a smile on their faces.”

Love said he did get some insight when he came out of the game with just over 12 minutes left in the first half.

“I had missed some shots I usually make and after I sat there and watched I said, ‘Things are going to get tougher than that. You’ve got to stay positive and keep going at it.’

“And when I got back in, some shots did start to drop.”

Now Nagy will try to get his players to embrace a positive approach to tonight’s high-stakes game.

The Raiders made it to the Horizon League title game three times in the past five years and four in the past eight and never advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

In that same span Nagy took four of the teams he coached at South Dakota State to the title game of the Summit League and won three of them and the NCAA Tournament bid that came with each.

He claims he’s looking at tonight’s game no differently than he does any other game.

“It’s just a game, that’s all it is,” he said. “There are a lot of other things that are a heck of a lot more important.

“This is super important to us and super important to Wright State, but sometimes we get it out of whack. So we just try to bring things back into perspective for our players and hopefully just have them relax.

“We just have to remember it’s just another game.”

Maybe so.

But no one can say this is just another team.

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