Dayton, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - An automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament is at stake in the championship game of the Horizon League Tournament on Tuesday night, as the third-seeded Wright State Raiders play host to the fifth-seeded Milwaukee Panthers at the Nutter Center.
After dismissing Detroit (83-73) and Valparaiso (74-57) in the first and second rounds, respectively, Milwaukee made a statement in the semifinals by knocking off top-seeded Green Bay on the road, 73-66, in overtime. The Panthers, who are 20-13 overall this season, are trying for their first tournament title since 2006.
Wright State earned a first-round bye and followed that up by taking down Oakland in the second round (73-57) and Cleveland State in the semifinals (68-63). The Raiders, winners of six straight, are also 20-13 and get to host this matchup as the highest remaining seed. The squad's only previous Horizon League Tournament championship came in 1997.
The teams split the two-game regular-season series, with each side winning on its home floor. After 49 all-time meetings, Milwaukee holds the slimmest of margins, 25-24.
The Panthers coughed up a double-double second-half lead to Green Bay in the semifinal round but managed to force overtime with 13 seconds left in regulation on a Jordan Aaron layup, and they never trailed in the extra session as they captured the seven-point upset victory. They shot 44.8 percent from the floor and more impressively held Green Bay to a mere 35 percent shooting. Aaron paced all scorers with 28 points while knocking down 4-of-8 from 3-point range. Matt Tiby tallied a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, Kyle Kelm and Austin Arians netted 14 and 12 points, respectively, and Steve McWhorter brought down 10 boards. Milwaukee has been inconsistent on the season, as it puts up nearly identical offensive production (.434 FG percentage, 71.0 ppg) as it allows to opponents (.435, 70.7 ppg). Aaron pours in a team-high 14.9 ppg, Kelm (12.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Tiby (12.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) have been solid in the frontcourt, while Arians (10.8 ppg) and McWhorter (8.1 ppg, 3.9 apg) round out the starting five.
The Raiders built up a six-point halftime lead over Cleveland State in the previous round and held on down the stretch to advance, as they outshot CSU from the field, 55 percent to 40 percent, and won the turnover battle, 13-10. Cole Darling knocked down all 10 of his free-throw attempts on his way to 21 points, Miles Dixon shot 6-of-8 from the field for 17 points and AJ Pacher logged 11 points and eight rebounds. Although Wright State shoots an impressive 45.6 percent from the field this season and connects on 73.7 percent of its free-throw tries, that production has only resulted in 67.5 ppg. Luckily its defensive effort has been top notch, as it yields just 62.1 ppg on 42.7 percent shooting while boasting a +2.9 turnover margin. Pacher (10.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg) is the only player to average in double figures, but Dixon, Darling, Jerran Young and JT Yoho all net between 8.3 and 8.9 ppg.