By HAL McCOY
Raise your hand if you thought Wright State University could win the Horizon League championship when Loudon Love didn’t have a field goal in the first half.
Put those hands down and use them to applaud and high-five Wright State for doing just that Tuesday night at Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit.
Cleveland State put The Great Wall of China around Love in he low post, surrounding him with three green-clad defenders every time he got the ball.
If that’s the way Cleveland State wanted to play it, that was copacetic with the Raiders.
They just put matters into the hands of senior Grant Benzinger and the other guys and they led WSU to a 74-57 victory, placing the Raiders into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
Benzinger, WSU’s whirling dervish, whipped in 19 points and snagged nine rebounds and four of his supporting cast scored nine or more.
For his efforts, Benzinger was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and in a postgame TV interview he showed why he is what he is.
“Honestly, I don’t think I deserved it (the Most Outstanding Player trophy,” he said. “I think Loudon Love should have won it. I guess I won it because I’m a senior.”
No, he won it because he epitomizes what Wright State basketball is all about, the two t‘s — togetherness and toughness.
“We are who we are because of how together and how tough we are,” said Benzinger, who almost left Wright State when Scott Nagy was named head coach. Fortunately for Nagy and WSU, Benzinger changed his mind and his reward was exactly what he wanted, an NCAA appearance.
“I just tell our guys to be tough and we can beat anybody we play,” Benzinger added.
Love had only two points at intermission, both free throws, but still wiped the glass for seven rebounds and Wright State led, 34-26. He was 0 for 6 in the first half because every shot had to go through a forest of green, but he often kicked the ball back out for baskets by Benzinger & Buddies.
Love got it going a bit in the second half and was involved in the game’s biggest play. It was 40-33 five minutes into the second half.
Freshman Everett Winchester drove for a basket and was fouled. He missed his free throw, but freshman Love hooked the rebound and put it back in — a four-point sequence that pushed the Raiders to a 44-33 lead.
Cleveland State, a surprise finalist with its 12-and-22 record (with a win over WSU during the season), never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
C-State was within 11 in the late stages, but sophomore point guard Cole Gentry made four free throws and a driving layup to score the Raiders final six points.
Gentry finished 11, while Love (an uncharacteristic 3 for 10), scored nine, as did Parker Ernsthausen and Mark Hughes.
All that remains is for WSU to wait their NCAA assignment — who and where. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects the Raiders as a No. 15 seed, which means they’d play a No. 2 seed.
The Raiders don’t care. They have the Horizon League championship, a school best 25 Division I wins and an automatic trip to the NCAA tournament.