(Author Note: This article was originally written on 3/3/15)
If Tuesday night’s first round games are any indication of what is to come, then the 2015 Horizon League Men’s Basketball Tournament should be one of the most exciting and thrilling in recent memory.
The first game pitted the #8 seed Penguins of Youngstown State against the #5 seed Detroit Mercy Titans. Detroit won both regular season meetings. But that seemed hard to believe as the Penguins held a 37-31 halftime lead.
The Titans sluggish start may have been partly due to the fact that the Horizon League’s second leading scorer, Juwan Howard Jr., came off the bench.
Howard Jr. finished with 20 points. But the unlikely hero for the Titans was sophomore Chris Jenkins who led all scorers with 21 points and also grabbed nine rebounds. It was Jenkins’ free throws that gave the Titans their first lead with under four minutes left, and they never trailed again en route to a 77-67 win.
Bobby Hain led a balanced Youngstown State attack with 14 points.
The Titans (15-17) advance to play Cleveland State on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Penguins’ season ends at 11-21. Youngstown State has never been to the NCAA Tournament. Detroit Mercy made their last March Madness appearance in 2012.
The second match-up turned out to be an even more improbable game, as the #7 Wright State Raiders traveled west to face the #6 Illinois-Chicago Flames. The outlook could not have been more bleak for UIC as they trailed 39-20 at halftime.
The Flames shot only 39% from the field. The difference for UIC turned out to be free throws made (16 to 10) and only having six turnovers, whereas Wright State had 14.
UIC’s Jay Harris led all scorers with 23 points, including the go-ahead three pointer with 1:13 left. He also had five assists. UIC won 60-57.
Joe Thomasson led four Raiders who reached double-figures with 12 points. Wright State finishes the season at 11-20.
Thanks to overcoming the largest halftime deficit in any conference tournament since 2010, UIC (9-23) continues their season against #3 Oakland on Friday.
Despite these being tournament games, it is surprising how poorly attended each contest was. There were just over 1,700 fans in Detroit and barely 1,600 in Chicago. With the tourney shifting to Valparaiso and an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, these numbers will almost certainly go up.
The Horizon League’s top two teams, Valparaiso and Wisconsin-Green Bay, have byes until the semi-finals on Saturday night. These games will be nationally televised on ESPNU.