Mar 11, 2014; Dayton, OH, USA; Milwaukee Panthers guard Cody Wichmann (5) celebrates during the first half against the Wright State Raiders during the championship game of the Horizon League tournament at the Nutter Center.
Tim Fuller / USA TODAY Sports
By Joe ReedyFOX Sports Ohio
FAIRBORN -- With five seniors and home court for the Horizon League championship game, Wright State was hoping both of those would be deciding factors in Tuesday night's game against Milwaukee.
Instead, the Panthers continued to defy the odds and are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006.
Milwaukee led throughout and posted a 69-63 win on Tuesday night at the Nutter Center. The Panthers, who were picked to finish last in the league in the preseason poll, are the first fifth seed to win the Horizon while the Raiders lost in the final for the second straight year.
"I told my players last year there's nothing like cutting down the nets on another team's floor. This one is going to be painful for a long time," Wright State coach Billy Donlon said.
The Raiders were the third seed in the tournament and advanced to the final with a 68-63 win over second-seeded Cleveland State. They got to host the final when Milwaukee upset Green Bay 73-66 in overtime. It marked the first time since the tournament went to its current format in 2003 that it had to relocate due to the top seed losing in the semifinals.
Milwaukee, who is the first team in Horizon history to win four straight tournament games en route to the title, wasn't fazed by playing another road game. They scored the game's first four points, led by double digits less than seven minutes into the game and had a 24-9 advantage with 9:03 left in the first half.
We knew we had to come out and get that first punch. We couldn't take the first punch because that would get the crowd in the game.
-- Jordan Aaron
"We knew we had to come out and get that first punch. We couldn't take the first punch because that would get the crowd in the game," said Milwaukee's Jordan Aaron, who scored 18 points and made four 3-pointers en route to being named the tournament MVP.
From there, Wright State faced an uphill battle the rest of the way. The Raiders shot 46.8 percent from the field compared to the Panthers' 38.6 but each time Wright State got within four or five, Milwaukee would make a three-pointer to get breathing room.
In the second half, the Panthers were 9 of 28 from the field but four of their field goals were from beyond the arc. Wright State had a 24-18 advantage in the paint but had only five offensive rounds.
The Raiders got within 67-63 with 1:03 remaining on a pair of Miles Dixon free throws but they missed their last five shots from the field, including two layups.
"There are very few answers for a team that shoots 9 of 18 on 3-pointers," Donlon said. "We missed a lot of shots at the rim. We just didn't finish at the rim and they did."
AJ Pacher, who led Wright State with 16 points, said each of the five seniors talked in the locker room at halftime about not going out the way they played in the first half. But they also knew that the climb was going to be steep.
Wright State's seniors leave as one of the more successful groups in school history, but they also have back-to-back losses in the conference final. There's still a chance the 20-13 Raiders might qualify for one of the postseason tournaments but Donlon tried to accentuate the positives of the group.
"We're not satisfied we didn't get to the NCAA tournament but not many teams in this conference get to back-to-back championship games," Donlon said.
It is the third time in four years that the home team has lost the conference final on their home court. Considering the adversity 21-13 Milwaukee has gone through this year, that was just another hurdle to get over.
Said coach Rob Jeter: "We've been through every scenario that has helped prepare us for this. We never were rattled."