A Wright State team built on defense was done in by a bigger, stronger and faster one Thursday as Tennessee overpowered the Raiders in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Volunteers held WSU to its lowest point total of the season and largest margin of defeat in a 73-47 triumph in a South Region game at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
“You can’t play as poorly as we did offensively and win an NCAA tournament game, not against a team like Tennessee,” Raiders coach Scott Nagy said. “We’ve been in some games like this where we’ve played poorly offensively and won, but you’re playing Tennessee, that just isn’t going to happen.”
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The loss ends the winningest Division I season in WSU history at 25-10, while the Volunteers (26-8) advance to face the winner of Thursday’s second game between No. 6 Miami and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.
The Raiders’ first trip to the NCAA tournament in 11 years started poorly and only got worse against one of the top defenses in the country.
With senior guard and leading scorer Grant Benzinger in a shooting funk and freshman center Loudon Love on the bench with trouble for most of the first half, WSU missed 14 of its first 17 shots to fall behind 21-8. And the Raiders recovered.
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Benzinger ended his college career with just five points on 2 of 16 shooting, including 1 of 9 from 3-point range.
The Volunteers held him scoreless over the final 24 minutes.
“You’re going to have games like that,” Nagy said. “Grant has had people sticking to him all year, so I don’t think that was any different. I don’t know what to tell you. He just had a tough game offensively.”
Everyone in green did as the Raiders made just 19 of 60 shots, including 4 of 21 from 3-point range against a Tennessee defense that also recorded six steals, six blocks and a 44-32 edge in rebounds.
“We felt coming in that Wright State would be as difficult a team as we’ve played all year in terms of the way they move without the ball,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “Defensively we were really pretty good today against a team that’s not a very easy team to guard.”
UT sophomore guard Lamonte Turner, the SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year, came off the bench to score a game-high 19 points, while junior forward Admiral Schofield posted 15 with a game-high 12 rebounds. Sophomore forward Grant Williams, the SEC Player of the Year, added 14 points and nine boards while playing a big role in getting Love into foul trouble.
The Raiders trailed by 11 at halftime, but the Volunteers opened the second half on a 14-4 run to coast into the second round.
Love led WSU with 12 points and nine rebounds, while freshman forward Everett Winchester added 11 points, eight of which came in the first half to keep the game from turning into a blowout earlier.
“Tennessee is really physical on defense,” Winchester said. “They’re in the lanes. They attack the ball. And they just pressure a lot. I think we had some pretty good looks out there. We just couldn’t knock down shots.”
As disappointing as the loss was, Nagy said it shouldn’t detract from a record- and barrier-breaking season.
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But getting that message through to the players proved to be as tough as fighting through the Tennessee defense.
“I’ve had to give that speech 23 times now because I’ve ended every one of my seasons with a loss,” Nagy said. “It’s hard for the kids to hear right there. It doesn’t matter what you say to try to make them feel better, they don’t feel better at that point.
“I think as time goes on, they’ll be able to look back and see what a special season this was,” he added. “One thing I told them is that I haven’t enjoyed every team that I’ve coached, but I really enjoyed these guys. This team has been a joy to coach, and for as thin as we were and as young as we are, we accomplished so much.”