All five starters scored in double-figures as the #4 seed Green Bay Phoenix won their fourth game in as many days, 78-69 over #3 Wright State in the Horizon League Championship game. The Phoenix clinch an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, which will be their first appearance since 1996. Jordan Fouse led the Phoenix with 16 points and 8 rebounds. Charles Cooper added 15 points, which included a memorable and emphatic slam dunk as he drove by Mark Alstork in the first half. Cooper had another impressive dunk in the second half in transition, after a steal by Tevin Findlay. Findlay was key down the stretch in the first half for Green Bay, scoring 7 straight points to help the Phoenix to a 42-30 halftime lead. He had an impressive one-handed shot in the key that be banked high off the glass.
Green Bay increased their lead to as many as 19 points midway through the second half with a 60-41 lead. But Wright State would not give up, clawing to within seven points. This was thanks in large part to a strong performance by senior guard Joe Thomasson who had 13 points and 12 rebounds. Senior center Michael Karena had 14 points to lead the Raiders. The biggest surprise was sophomore guard Justin Mitchell, who had 10 points on 5-7 shooting. This is the definition of making the most of one’s time on the court because Mitchell did not play at all in the last two games. Yesterday’s heroes, Alstork and JT Yoho, struggled the entire game. They combined to score only 12 points on an awful 3-22 from the field. The frustration became apparent for the Raiders in the second half. On one play, Alstork had his shot blocked twice near the basket, and then fouled the opponent when trying to recover the loose ball. While on the ground, he slammed his arm to the floor in disgust. Later, Karena was given a technical foul after screaming when running back on defense. His outburst was a combination of failing to score in the paint and likely thinking he was fouled too.
Green Bay’s victory was most impressive, especially since Horizon League First Team selection Carrington Love only had 10 points, 2 assists, and no steals. The Phoenix did a great job defensively, as Kenneth Lowe, Cooper, and Fouse clogged the paint up, making Wright State work hard for any scoring opportunities inside. Green Bay came into this game allowing opponents to score 80 points per contest. So they really stepped up their defensive effort on the biggest stage. On the flip side, Wright State had the second-best defense in the league, allowing only 65 points per game. It was Green Bay’s ability to get to the free throw line that was the biggest difference in the game. They were 22-31 from the foul line, while Wright State was just 8-10. Wright State just looked tired at times, like they hit the proverbial wall. Green Bay played with more energy and urgency, and the Raiders had trouble containing their athleticism on both ends.
Star seniors Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse get to go out on a high note for the Phoenix. This feels even sweeter for them as they lost in the championship game last year to Valparaiso. It also has to feel great for first-year Phoenix coach Linc Darner, who has completed the amazing feat of leading Florida Southern to the NCAA Division 2 title last year, and then his new team to the NCAA Division 1 Tournament.
Green Bay (23-12, 11-7) will find out their spot on the March Madness bracket on Selection Sunday. Wright State’s (22-13, 13-5) season is definitely not over. If Valpo gets an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, there is an outside chance the Raiders could land in the NIT. But they are more likely to get a berth in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).