Wright State not only trailed Wisconsin-Milwaukee for most of the game Saturday night, but the deficit continued to rise throughout the second half, climbing as high 17 points with 5:33 remaining.
The Raiders still trailed by 16 with 3:47 to go, but the Panthers would only score one point the rest of the way, giving WSU a chance to pull off a remarkable comeback.
But Grant Benzinger’s 3-pointer at the buzzer hit off the back of the rim, allowing Milwaukee to exhale with a 74-73 victory.
“It was unbelievable that we had a shot there at the end to win it,” WSU coach Scott Nagy said. “But I don’t think that makes it any easier to take.”
That’s because in addition to the game, the Raiders (19-8, 11-3) also lost their hold on first place in the Horizon League as Northern Kentucky took sole possession with an 86-80 victory against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Here are five things to know about Saturday’s near miracle:
Charting the comeback
With his team down 16 with 3:47 to go, Nagy made the decision to let his defense, which had struggled to stop Milwaukee all night, try to get the Raiders back in the game rather than sending the Panthers parading to the foul line.
And it paid off as WSU forced turnovers on four of the next six possessions while rebounding missed 3-pointers on the other two.
“There’s a question of do you want to foul and just put them on the free throw line 100 times, and we didn’t,” he said. “I thought our strategy was the right strategy. We just had to get stops in a row and we did. They turned it over a little bit and we were fortunate they missed some free throws when we did have to foul.”
Milwaukee missed the front end of a one-and-one while leading by eight with 35 seconds to go, and the Panthers missed another up five with 27 seconds remaining.
Meanwhile WSU got points on nine of its final 12 possessions, including some key free throws that allowed the players to catch their breath. Nagy used his final timeout with 4:40 remaining, and the Raiders were playing shorthanded after Parker Ernsthausen suffered a first-half injury that forced him to miss the second half.
“The toughest part for us in all of that is I had to use my timeouts to try to strategically place them where we could get rest, the maximum amount of rest,” Nagy said.
Milwaukee snapped a 3:31 scoring drought on a Carson Warren-Newsome free throw with 16 seconds remaining to push the lead to four. But Benzinger hit a 3-pointer to get the Raiders within one, and Brock Stull missed two free throws with 9.6 remaining.
Cole Gentry pushed the ball up the court, flipped the ball to Benzinger, who drew double coverage while Mark Hughes stood open in the corner. With time running out, Benzinger took the shot himself and sent it just a tad long.
“I know if Grant had that back, he would’ve wished (he would have passed) because Mark was there on the right,” Nagy said. “But you know, Grant’s a confident player, and he felt like he could make that shot.”
Freshman center Loudon Love led WSU with 20 points and 19 rebounds, which not only were a career high but one shy of the top performance in Division I this season. Abilene Christian’s Jaren Lewis had 20 rebounds three days earlier in 69-65 loss to Nicholls State.
Only five Division I players have recorded 19 rebounds this season.
Ironically, Love’s performance came one year and one day after Benzinger had a career-high 19 rebounds in Feb. 9, 2017 game that also came against Milwaukee at the Nutter Center.
Hughes heating up
Junior guard Mark Hughes tied his career high with 19 points. The performance came two days after Hughes recorded a career-high 14 rebounds in a 68-64 win against Wisconsin-Green Bay, and seven days after he knocked down a career-high five 3-pointers in an 83-57 triumph at Youngstown State.
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Not only did Hughes’ 14 rebounds against Green Bay double his previous high of seven, they were part of his first double-double as he finished with 13 points.
The Panthers came into the game ranked last in the HL in 3-point percentage at 32.1, but Stull hit his first three treys as part of a 10-of-14 start for Milwaukee.
“They hit a lot of contested 3s,” Love said. “They got going early. We made shortcuts sometimes that were the wrong play. They got hot, and it was hard to shut them down from that point on.”
WSU can jump back into first place in the HL Friday night when the Raiders play host to Northern Kentucky in a 9 p.m. game airing on ESPNU.
While a Raiders victory would create another tie atop the league, WSU would own the key head-to-head tiebreaker via season sweep. The Raiders won 84-81 at NKU on Jan. 11.
“We’ll face a team on Friday that we beat, and they’ll be motivated,” Nagy said.