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Wright State holds off NKU, 84-81, Thursday night in Horizon League first-place showdown

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By Don Owen
NKyTribune reporter

While it’s still too early to say Wright State took control of the Horizon League with its 84-81 win at Northern Kentucky University on Thursday night, the Raiders certainly gained a firm grip on first place in the standings.

Grant Benzinger poured in a game-high 31 points as Wright State (13-5 overall, 5-0 Horizon League) finished off a three-game road trip with a perfect record, including pivotal victories at preseason favorites Oakland and NKU. Loudon Love added 17 points and 10 rebounds for the Raiders, who entered the game tied with the Norse atop the Horizon League standings.

NKU’s Carson Williams dunks against Wright State on Thursday night. Williams scored 13 points. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Wright State also extended its winning streak to six games and avenged three losses to NKU last season.

“Winning on the road is how you get ahead of people in the league, and we’ve won three in a row on the road,” Wright State head coach Scott Nagy said. “We took their best punch in the second half when we got down five, but we didn’t fold up. We had the lead in all three games against them last year, but we folded up in each one. Our players stepped up and finished this one.”

Mark Hughes and Everett Winchester each added 10 points as Wright State prevailed in a venue that has not been hospitable to visiting teams. NKU, in fact, had won 13 consecutive games at BB&T Arena dating back to last season. The Norse had not lost at home in almost a year, the last setback a 79-70 decision to Oakland on Jan. 20, 2017.

All that came to an end Thursday night in front of a noisy crowd of 4,987 at BB&T Arena.

“It was a great crowd, the community was behind us, and it’s disappointing we didn’t perform the way we had the last couple of games,” said NKU junior forward Drew McDonald, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. “Any loss is tough, but we had a chance to win tonight against a very good team with the community behind us, and we didn’t get it done. You have to protect your home court, and Wright State came in and took something from us. But the fan support has been fantastic.”

Lavone Holland II scored 22 points and dished out five assists for NKU, which dropped to 11-6 overall, 4-1 in the Horizon League. Carson Williams added 13 points and three steals, but the Norse allowed Wright State to shoot 55.8 percent from the field and watched their four-game winning streak come to an end.

“At the end of the day, we did not guard,” NKU head coach John Brannen said. “We preach defensive habits on a regular basis, and for some reason those habits didn’t come to light. We need to figure out why we gave up 56 percent shooting from the field.”

NKU’s Lavone Holland II scores in the second half against Wright State. Holland led NKU with 22 points. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

The Raiders were particularly efficient in the second half, when they blistered the nets for 60 percent from the field. Wright State rallied from a 62-57 deficit with a 9-0 run, the last five points coming from Benzinger.

“Give Wright State a tremendous amount of credit,” Brannen said. “I was concerned their discipline, toughness and execution would be a big challenge for us. They went out and won the game, that’s what good teams do.”

Last Sunday during an overtime win at Oakland, Love scored 25 points and grabbed 17 rebounds to lead the way. The bulky 6-foot-9 freshman continued to make an impression Thursday night, netting his 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field.

Love also scored a pair of momentum-shifting inside baskets that countered NKU spurts in the second half.

“Every time we went on a run, it seemed like they answered with their own run,” Holland said.

Despite Wright State’s torrid shooting, NKU still had a chance in the final minute. With 53.1 seconds remaining in the game and Wright State clinging to a 78-75 lead, Cole Gentry turned the ball over while dribbling against NKU’s pressure in the backcourt.

Following a timeout, the Norse’s Dantez Walton popped open and launched a 3-pointer, but the shot rimmed out and Wright State rebounded. Gentry then hit a runner as the shot clock wound down to extend the Wright State lead to 80-75.

“That was a big play by Cole,” Nagy said. “We needed to score, and he came through just as the shot clock was running down.”

NKU’s Drew McDonald (left) challenges Wright State’s Grant Benzinger (13) in the first half Thursday night. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Benzinger added a pair of free throws with 10 seconds left, and Gentry iced the game by making a pair of charity tosses.

Holland’s 3-pointer at the buzzer accounted for the final margin. Wright State upped its lead in the all-time series with NKU to 22-10, and the Raiders could thank Cincinnati native Benzinger for putting them in position to win.

“A couple of his shots, I was like ‘No, no,’ but he made them,” Nagy said of Benzinger’s long 3-pointers in the first half. “He was fabulous. Grant puts the time in, works hard at his game, so I don’t say a whole lot to him. You let him shoot when he’s open.”

NKU made 44.4 percent of its shots from the field, but the Norse were just 8-for-26 from 3-point range. Holland buried four shots from beyond the arc, while Tyler Sharpe came off the bench and hit a pair of 3-pointers en route to scoring 10.

Prior to the game, NKU recognized Holland for joining the Norse’s 1,000-point club last Friday night when he scored a second-half basket against Oakland.

NKU plays host to Cleveland State on Monday at 7:30 p.m. The Norse will meet a Vikings team that is 4-13 overall, 1-3 in the Horizon League.

“We’re still just one game out of first place,” Brannen said. “There are a lot of games remaining. Our crowd was awesome tonight and tried to help us, but we need to figure out what went wrong.”

NKU/WRIGHT STATE PHOTO GALLERY

HORIZON LEAGUE STANDINGS

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com

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