Grant Benzinger grew up watching the NCAA Tournament, looking up old highlights and locking in for “One Shining Moment,” with his dad, hoping to play in it someday.
His dream is about to come true.
Benzinger had 19 points and nine rebounds to help second-seeded Wright State beat eighth-seeded Cleveland State 74-57 on Tuesday night to win the Horizon League Tournament title and earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
“It’s great to be a part of it now,” he said.
The Raiders (25-9) will play in the NCAAs for the third time in school history and the first since 2007.
“I’m sure we’ll probably have a pretty high seed and we’ll play one of the top nine or 12 teams in the country,” coach Scott Nagy said.
The Vikings (12-23) took their last lead with 7:36 left in the first half and seemed to wear down, playing their fourth game in five days.
Wright State took control late in the first half with a 13-2 run, taking an eight-point lead at halftime. The Raiders outscored Cleveland State 10-2 early in the second half to pull away.
“There’s no excuse about being tired,” Cleveland State guard Kenny Carpenter said.
Loudon Love made his first field goal with 14:42 left to put the Raiders up 44-33. The 6-foot-9, 275-pound center finished with nine points and 12 rebounds, setting the school’s freshman scoring record and its single-season mark for rebounds. Wright State’s Cole Gentry and Jaylon Hall scored 11 points apiece.
“Love displaced us all game,” Cleveland State coach Dennis Felton said. “We did a very, very good job establishing position, but he was just very persistent and very physical.”
“To play in front of family, it’s just special,” Carpenter said. “It was a great experience and I’ll never forget it.”
Cleveland State : Felton, who led Georgia and Western Kentucky to the NCAA Tournament, guided the low-seeded team to one-point wins over Northern Kentucky and fourth-seeded Oakland near its suburban Detroit campus to advance to the finals. That gave the Vikings their first four-game winning streak in four-plus years.
“Even before this run to the championship, I know we accomplished a lot this year because we kept improving,” said Felton, who was in his first year at the school.
Wright State: Nagy led South Dakota State to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 for third time in five years. The Horizon League Coach of the Year can use that experience to help his players, who were young kids the last time the Raiders were in the NCAA Tournament 11 years ago.
“Coach knows what it takes to get there and what to do when you’re there, so we’ll just follow his lead,” Benzinger said.
Wright State’s postgame celebration included giving Ryan Custer a championship cap. Custer had spinal cord surgery after an accident 11 months ago, putting the 6-foot-7 former Raiders forward in a wheelchair.
“To have him here this weekend was wonderful,” Nagy said. “I know it was good for him and his family.”
Cleveland State: Felton started two freshmen — Appleby and Stefan Kenic — and will have to build around them next season after a lot of departures.
“We’ll be starting all over two years in a row because next year, over half of our team will be new players,” Felton said. “So the few returning players that we have, they’ve got their work cut out for them in terms of leading the next group.”
Wright State: After an enjoyable trip back to campus in Dayton, Ohio, the Raiders will find out Sunday who they’re playing and where they’re headed in the NCAA Tournament.
“They’ll walk around for four or five days and everybody is going to pat them on their back and tell them how great they are,” Nagy said. “So it’ll be my job to bring them back down to earth.”
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