FAIRBORN — It’s March Madness.
There’s no other way to explain it, after the University of Milwaukee defeated Wright State, 69-63, in the Horizon League title game on Tuesday.
The fifth-seeded Panthers surged to the title game displaying toughness inside and a high basketball IQ. But it was uncharacteristic prowess from 3-point range against the league’s best defense that propelled the Panthers to their fourth NCAA Tournament.
After making just 32.3 percent of their shots from 3-point range in the regular season, the Panthers made half of their 3-pointers heaved in the Nutter Center and withstood a late rally by the Raiders. In their two regular-season meetings, both WSU wins, the Panthers made a combined six 3-pointers. They had five in the first half alone on Tuesday. Every time the Raiders made a run, the Panthers answered with a key 3-pointer.
“They’re very few answers for a team that goes 9-for-18 from the three,” WSU coach Billy Donlon said.
Tournament MVP Jordan Aaron made four of the 3-pointers, three in the second half, and teammate Austin Arians made two in the first half to spark the Panthers.
“It was the timing of the threes,” Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said, adding that WSU tried to speed up the game with pressure.
“We were aggressive with that pressure and we made the threes,” Jeter said.
It wasn’t entirely a shootout. All-Tournament Team selection Kyle Kelm led all scorers with 20 points, pounding the ball inside and grabbed nine rebounds, including three on the offensive end. Aaron finished with 18 while Arians added 12. Senior A.J. Pacher, another All-Tournament team selection, led WSU with 16 points while senior Matt Vest added 11.
The Panthers (21-13) made just 38.6 percent of their shots overall, but supplemented that with 13 offensive rebounds leading to 11 second-chance points.
“We would get a stop and they would get an offensive rebound and that’s another 30 seconds off the clock,” Donlon said. “We had to get some rebounds.”
WSU (20-14) actually outshot Milwaukee, hitting 46.8 percent of its shots. But perhaps it was a few shots that didn’t go in that hurt the most,
Down 65-58 with 4:24 left, Pacher missed a close-in shot in the paint. Then down 67-61 with with 1:54 left Chrishawn Hopkins missed a layup. WSU cut it to 67-63 after a pair of free throws by Miles Dixon, who was selected to the All-Tournament Team, but the Raiders could get no closer.
“Sometimes that’s just basketball,” Donlon said. “We got it to the rim, too. We missed shots at the rim. My kids weren’t soft.”
Perhaps they were a little shell-shocked early.
Milwaukee jumped in front quickly and stayed in front the entire first half building a 15-point lead midway through. The Raiders went more than seven minutes without a bucket and Milwaukee shot a sizzling 70% the first 10 minutes of the game. A pair of J.T. Yoho 3-pointers cut the lead to 24-15 with 9:01 and then Reggie Arceneaux drained a jumper to cut the lead to seven.
The Raiders got the lead down to five on several occasions late in the half but Milwaukee closed with a 9-4 run to lead by 10 at the half.
Wright State opened the second half with a 10-4 run to cut it to 47-43, but Milwaukee quickly answered when Matt Tiby nailed a 3-pointer and Kelm scored inside. Pacher was called for his third foul on the positioning for a possible rebound after Tiby’s shot, allowing Milwaukee to keep the ball.
The lead reached 60-48 after a 3-pointer by Jordan Aaron, and WSU could not complete the comeback.
“We kept scratching at the lead in the second half,” Vest said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
The Raiders, who advanced to back-to-back league title games, will now wait to see if they earn an invitation to one of three other post-season tournaments.