Picked to finish last in the Horizon League’s preseason poll.
Seeded No. 5 heading into the conference tournament.
From start to finish, Milwaukee has been mostly overlooked.
Maybe that’s why the Panthers so enjoyed cutting down those nets on Tuesday night with everyone watching.
Senior forward Kyle Kelm had a double-double as Milwaukee’s front line dominated, and the Panthers led the whole way during a 69-63 victory over Wright State for the Horizon League tournament title.
"I might wear this for two weeks," senior guard Jordan Aaron said, with one of the joyously snipped nets drooped around his neck.
Milwaukee (21-13) is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, when the Panthers knocked off Oklahoma in the first round before losing to Florida. They’re 3-3 all-time in the tournament.
This one was most unexpected. The Panthers became the first No. 5 seed to win the Horizon League tournament, winning all but one of the tournament games on the road.
"Everything has seemed to come together," coach Rob Jeter said, wearing the other net around his neck. "There hasn’t been anything they’ve slacked in. That’s the toughness that’s required to represent the Horizon League as champions.
"We never rattled."
Kelm had 20 points and nine rebounds, and Aaron scored 18 points as Milwaukee went 9 of 18 from beyond the arc against the league’s top defense and had a 35-28 edge in rebounds.
"They really got after us on the boards," said Wright State’s Matt Vest, who had 11 points. "That’s a credit to them, especially their seniors. Kelm and Aaron really carried them."
Wright State (20-14) had a season-high six-game winning streak snapped. The Raiders were trying to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, but wound up losing the tournament title game for the second year in a row.
A.J. Pacher led the Raiders with 16 points despite spending much of the second half on the bench in foul trouble.
The title game wound up on Wright State’s floor after the tournament’s top two seeds got knocked out in the semifinals. Milwaukee beat No. 1 seed Green Bay 73-66 in overtime. No. 3 seed Wright State beat No. 2 seed Cleveland State 68-63.
Milwaukee had one more upset left in it.
"We’ve fought through a lot of adversity," Aaron said. "We’ve had some of the highest highs, been through the lows and we never gave up on each other."
The teams split their season series, each winning at home after building a big early lead. The Raiders won in Dayton 73-57 on Jan. 21 after pulling ahead 39-21 at halftime. The Panthers got ahead by 20 points before holding on for a 68-64 win on Jan. 30.
The rematch was another case of trying to hold onto a big early lead. The Panthers pulled it off.
Milwaukee hardly missed at the outset. The Panthers made seven of their first 10 shots, including 3 of 4 beyond the arc, during an opening 21-7 run. Austin Arians had a jumper and a 3-pointer during the spurt, which was set up by four Wright State turnovers.
The Raiders went nearly 8 minutes without a field goal as the Panthers extended the lead to 15 points.
J.T. Yoho hit back-to-back 3s that started an eight-point run and got Wright State going. The Raiders got the lead down to 32-27 with an 8-3 spurt that featured a pair of free throws and a tip-in by Pacher.
Kelm had a three-point play and a putback that helped Milwaukee extend the lead to 43-33 at the half. Kelm had a game-high 14 points in the half.
The Panthers returned to the court first to warm up for the second half, only to find there were no basketballs to shoot. They stood around for a few minutes before an equipment handler wheeled out a rack of basketballs.
Both teams took the ball inside for points at the start of the second half. Pacher had a pair of baskets but picked up his third foul as Wright State cut it to 47-43. He returned and picked up his fourth foul with 9:57 to go.
Milwaukee went on a 10-3 spurt that featured Aaron’s 3-pointer and rebuilt the lead to 60-48 midway through the half.
With Pacher back in the game, Wright State made its final run. Jerran Young had a jumper and a 3-pointer, and Miles Dixon’s two free throws cut it to 67-63 with 1:03 left. Aaron was fouled while driving to the basket and made both free throws with 31.5 seconds to go.
Wright State missed a pair of 3-point shots as Milwaukee finished it off.