Before Michael Jordan hit what would become known as “The Shot” in the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Mike Grote did his own take on a game-winner at Kentucky Wesleyan in 1983.
There may not be a more heated rivalry in Wright State basketball history than the one with Kentucky Wesleyan in the 1980’s. Over a seven-year stretch from 1981-1987, the two schools would play 16 times, and the stakes were often high.
Four of those games were played in the NCAA tournament, with the right to advance on the line. The first of those match-ups had occurred during the 1981-82 season, as the Panthers eliminated the Raiders in the opening round 76-71 in overtime. Wesleyan would go on to appear in the final four of the Division II tournament.
Expectations were sky-high for Wright State coming into the next season, with depth and a roster loaded with experienced talent like Gary Monroe, Fred Moore, Anthony Bias and Tom Holzapfel. The Raiders reeled off nine wins to start the season, then hit a stretch in early January that saw them lose three of six – all at home – and left the coaches searching for answers.
“I can remember Coach Underhill and I in the locker room after losing the third game of those three losses,” remembers assistant coach Jim Brown. “We were really, really beside ourselves. We had lost to neighboring school, Central State, by 20 and followed that up by losing on our home floor to IP-Fort Wayne, which was a fledgling program without much success. We must have been down in that locker room for an hour lamenting our situation.”
A late January trip to Owensboro provided an opportunity to not only right the ship, but also avenge the painful loss that ended the previous season. Redemption wouldn’t come easy. Wesleyan returned All-Americans Dwight Higgs and Rod Drake, and the Sports Center could be an intimidating venue often filled with 5,400 Purple-clad fans. While he had played there only once, point guard Mike Grote grasped the intensity early on. “We didn’t like them, and they didn’t like us.”
The burgeoning rivalry was not lost on Raider fans. “When we played at Wesleyan we would have a whole bunch of fans”, said Brown. “When I say 200 fans, that’s not an exaggeration. It was a migration from Fairborn to Owensboro, Kentucky.”
The game – at least the ending – didn’t disappoint.
“We were down most of the game, and the margin had gotten to 13 with under four minutes to go,” Brown recalls. “We pressed, got some turnovers and easy baskets, and we found ourselves right back in it. ”
With Wesleyan up one, the Raiders fouled Higgs with 10 seconds left in regulation. Higgs, who finished his career at Kentucky Wesleyan as its all-time leading scorer and was a three-time All-American, went to the line to effectively seal the win for the home team.
Higgs’ first free throw was in-and-out, and Gary Monroe grabbed the rebound. Monroe immediately outletted to Grote, who took two dribbles up the right side of the court before passing to Tom Holzapfel. “Tom was our best shooter. How dare I not pass him the ball? So I did.” Holzapfel took one dribble and shot from the left elbow.
At that point, serendipity took over.
Brown recounts, “The ball hits the side of the rim and takes a direct bounce toward the baseline, and Mike Grote is running full speed toward the baseline for whatever reason.” Grote adds, “Ninety-nine times out of 100 when I made that pass I would not have kept going. My job was to stay back on defense.”
Grote’s hustle put him in position for the most improbable of shots.
As Grote approached the basket, the ball caromed hard off the rim back and to the right of where he was positioned. “I’m falling down but nothing’s on the ground. So I have nothing to stabilize myself. I’m not going to claim I knew what I was doing – I just threw it.”
The degree of difficulty was matched by the drama as to whether the ball was going to fall into the cylinder. “It hit every side of the rim and went in,” says Brown.
The emotion of the moment hit Grote after realizing the shot beat the buzzer. “I looked up at the clock, saw the score change, and proceeded to run and yell at every Kentucky Wesleyan fan in that arena.”
The celebration continued for the team and fans afterwards at the Executive Inn, a favorite landing spot for Raider fans who made the trip. In his 27 years as a coach, Brown still reflects on the victory as one of his favorite moments. “It was one of the greatest nights in my time at Wright State.”
Wright State would go on to play and beat Kentucky Wesleyan two more times that 1982-83 season, including a 69-67 nail biter in the finals of the NCAA Regional tournament in Owensboro.
The series ended in 1987 with Wright State having the edge, 9-7. The seven-year rivalry saw packed gymnasiums, unforgettable games and All-American players. The Raiders would win 80% of its games over that period, and the Panthers 78%.