After defeating NC State, Wright State returned home feeling great about the season and optimistic of the Horizon League play ahead. Wright State would start its home slate against the two Wisconsin teams over the New Year, but as we’ve come to know with sports in 2020, COVID can come in and try to ruin it all.
The dreaded coronavirus robbed Wright State and Milwaukee of a few of its members. For Wright State, AJ Braun, Riley Voss, Andy Neff, Alex Huibregtse, assistant coach Travis Trice and head coach Scott Nagy were removed from competition for both games over the weekend. The Raiders managed a squad a eight players and two coaches over the New Years stretch, just above the NCAA minimum to compete. Milwaukee lost Pat Baldwin Jr., the five star recruit that joined the team to add to the list of father-son duos, and backups Samba Kane and Tyler Ellingson. Green Bay did not declare any players out for their COVID protocol.
AJ Braun was the only starter to tap out for the night. The freshman has been the focal point of the offense since his debut in the Naples Invitational and has made the squad uniquely imposing. The double big man combo of Basile and Braun recently caused NC State’s Wolfpack fits as they struggled to contain the two of them. In place of Braun, CJ Wilbourne was given the fifth starting position for the weekend. Riley Voss, Andy Neff, and Alex Huibregtse are all depth pieces, and Voss and Huibregtse in particular were key pieces behind the arc.
Coach Scott Nagy also was forced to pass the baton on to his Associate Head Coach Clint Sargent. A player in Nagy’s system at South Dakota State, he has been coaching alongside Nagy for ten years and would finally get his chance to take the driver’s seat for the first time ever against Green Bay and Milwaukee. While losing Nagy is definitely a blow, and according to interviews with the players Nagy was probably losing his mind at home, there’s no one more qualified to fill the coach’s shoes than Sargent.
Vs. Milwaukee, December 30th
The Raiders started the game with Milwaukee off well, getting inside to get the shots the program is accustomed to. While the shots early in the game bounced off the rim and allowed Milwaukee to get an early lead, the Raiders kept Milwaukee within striking distance with their defense. The second media break ended with the Raiders down 22-18, but they turned it around coming out of the timeout and surged to take the lead off of set of runs to go hit the highest lead of the night at 39-31. Before the halftime call, however, Milwaukee battled back and put themselves up by 1 on a last second three by Devon Hancock to make the score 42-41.
The back and forth game in the first half was led by DeAndre Gholston of the Panthers, who simply could not be stopped by the Raiders. Gholston made four three pointers in the half, some of which felt like they came from the stands, and was able to pressure the defense with his presence outside while Josh Thomas found his way inside the post. For the Raiders, Tanner Holden led the balanced offense that saw all players contribute to the scoring, something that has been lacking a little throughout the season. The bench members were able to get some time in under a slightly adjusted minute system with Coach Sargent working with what he has available.
The Raiders entered the half entirely cold and only scored 4 points in the span of eight minutes, counting the dry spell from before the halftime buzzer. This has been a pattern with the team, periods of dry shooting that allow opponents to get back into the game as the offense goes completely out of sync. Milwaukee had taken the lead 55-44 before the Raiders eventually pulled themselves out of their slump. The Panthers became the victims of a devastating 21-4 run as Gholston became ice cold on the floor and the Raiders locked down the inside. The game was a nail biter to the finish as Milwaukee tried to battle it back but the night would end as the Raider’s first conference home victory 80-75.
Four Raiders would finish in double digits, led by Tanner Holden’s 22 points, as the Raiders got much needed help off the bench from Welage and Norris, whose shot selection gave them both perfect records on the night. Tim Finke was solid with 2-5 shooting from three and just one rebound short of his first double double of the season. Finke’s second three near the end of regulation sealed the game for the Raiders and was an excellent display of teamwork by Welage.
Clint Sargent looked calm and collected most of the night on the way to his first victory as a head coach. “There was a moment in the second half where our fans were yelling ‘Come on Sargent, call a timeout!’ and I thought to myself, man, life comes at you fast,” Sargent laughed during the post-game radio show. “So incredibly proud of our platers for finding a way, they had no rhythm or flow, but then they stepped it up.”
Vs. Green Bay, January 1st
Just like with Milwaukee, the match against Green Bay started with the Raiders getting behind but staying close. Green Bay had forced three turnovers in two minutes, two of which were credited to Basile, and had used these to gain a 6 point lead early, but then the Raiders came pushing back through with a run of their own and took the lead 16-13 forcing a Green Bay timeout.
The Raiders then used the fouls the referees were liberally calling to go up 38-28, the highest lead of the game, before allowing the Phoenix to get four points to end the half. At that point in the half, Tanner Holden had more free throw points than buckets, making 6 of his 11 points from the stripe, and the team as a whole had a 61% shooting percentage. Lucas Stieber for Green Bay was the one leading the charge as he led all scorers with a perfect 100% from the floor and 13 points total in what would end up being his career game.
Wright State entered the half cold yet again, as they scored seven points in ten minutes to allow Green Bay the time it needed to get back into the game. From there, the nail biting began again in the Nutter Center as the Phoenix jockeyed for position whenever they could, relying on Stieber and Ansong to break through and get the scoring they needed. After tying it up 45-45 halfway through the second half, the Phoenix finally found an opening and pulled themselves ahead 68-62 with two and a half minutes remaining on the clock. With Basile knocked out due to foul trouble, all Green Bay had to do was hold the rest of the squad in check to get their first win since beating Robert Morris at home.
The Phoenix then went cold and made costly foul mistakes to allow Trey Calvin and one of the NCAA leaders in free throw shooting in Tanner Holden to take easy points at the line. After Holden made consecutive graceful jumpers, weaving through Green Bay defenders and giving the Raiders a 1 point lead, Kamari McGee tied it for the Phoenix.
After recovering the second missed free throw, the Raiders handed the ball off to Calvin. He made his defender Kamari McGee trip and sunk his only three pointer of the night to put the Raiders up for good with 20 seconds left. The stadium went insane, and after a couple of desperate threes, the Raiders walked away victorious 72-69.
There’s a lot to love about this Raiders squad going forward into the bulk of Horizon play. They have shown that they are able to overcome adversity like losing key pieces to the puzzle. Clint Sargent is now a perfect 2-0 with the program, piloting the ship that Nagy had crafted without too many issues. “I learned something about how to deal with emotions when you’re down as well, something I hadn’t gotten to work with in my time yet,” he would remark to Chris Collins after the Milwaukee game. The bench is starting to round out and develop into a tool that the Raiders can use as well. However, there are some things that come as a concern as well.
After ending the first half at 61%, the Raiders ended the night against Green Bay with a perfect 50-50 split, in large part due to the slump they faced in the second half. The Raiders are prone to going long spans of time with little to no scoring, but against Milwaukee and Green Bay that pattern nearly cost them those games. The offense is very explosive, able to take defenses off guard if they can’t cover the guys they need to, such as Basile under the rim. Once a defense has them figured out however, which could be as simple as playing a 2-3 zone defense that has confounded the Raiders up until this point, the offense stalls out noticeably. It’s going to be up to the field generals to notice when somethings amiss and change the movement of the game.
Wright State’s next three games are at home against UIC on Thursday, January 6th, and IUPUI on Saturday, January 8th. The Raiders also have an NKU match up, if they aren’t still in COVID protocol, that will be played in Highland Heights on Monday, January 10th.