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Mike Lopresti | | March 10, 2022

Inside a night full of rallies and raw emotions for Wright State — the 2022 Horizon League champions

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INDIANAPOLIS — In the end Tuesday night, the Horizon League was about a championship team with one dramatic win, and a series of agonizing losses. Not losses on a scoreboard, but the personal ones that can break a heart.

Look out on the packed court at the Wright State celebration going on. The frenzied kind you get when a team has rallied from 16 points down and won in the final 10 seconds to punch its proverbial ticket for the NCAA tournament. There are hugs to share and nets to cut. But where’s the coach?

Scott Nagy is sitting alone on the bench for a moment, away from it all, and cannot stop the tears. His father is with him. The father he lost five months ago. Dick Nagy was a longtime assistant coach at Illinois and an inspiration and steady voice for the son who followed him into the profession. How he would be loving this night. But he’s gone.

“I haven’t cried much since I lost him, but I just broke down there,” Nagy would say a few moments later. “This is hard for me. I wish I could enjoy this with him.”

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Look at the Raiders players, just having beaten Northern Kentucky 72-71 on Trey Calvin’s pull-up jumper with 10 seconds left. They’re happily putting on the Horizon League champion shirts someone had ready. Except for the guard who scored 19 points. Why does he have a different shirt with a man’s face on it?

That’s Tanner Holden, and the picture is of his grandfather, Hall of Fame Dirt Late Model race driver Delmas Conley, who died of cancer in January.

“I found my mom just bawling her eyes out,” Holden would say later. “That kind of hit home with me because my papa was at every game. I wear this shirt around just because I know if he was here today, he’d be here tonight. This shirt always brings his face with me, and it always brings him in the arena.”

Somewhere out there in the joyous masses is center AJ Braun. What must he be thinking?

His father died suddenly in January. AJ ended up in COVID protocol. So did some of his teammates, which is why Wright State had only seven players in a loss at Youngstown State.

“We’ve lost three dads on our team this year and three grandpas, all very close,” Nagy said. “People who were so instrumental in our lives, we didn’t get to share this with in a physical sense. There’s just a lot of emotions. Sometimes god gives you want you want, sometimes he doesn’t give you want he wants. But he gives us what we need.”

So this is the team Northern Kentucky was trying to beat Tuesday night: A tight-knit and tough-minded bunch banded together by near-continual mourning. A 16-point deficit certainly wasn’t going to rattle these guys, after all they’ve been through.

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“We have a saying, brotherhood over basketball,” Calvin said. “No matter what we’re doing, no matter if we’re up 30 or down 30, we stick together. We go through it together. We’re champions now because of it.”

This a team that started 2-7. But a mourning coach takes responsibility for that. He had just buried his father.

“We got off to such a bad start and I think that was a big reason for it, because my focus was so bad,” Nagy said. “I was out to lunch. I didn’t do a good job early because of my dad. I finally got myself together and started coaching better.”

His wife Jamie saw it, too. “Several times early on he said it was like he was having — I don’t know if it was an out-of-body experience — but things weren’t right. He spent his whole life, every basketball season, with grandpa there. He was missing his sounding board and missing his comfort.”

The real life blows in the Wright State family seemed to come one after another, without end. The Raiders leaned on one another and carried on, all the way to Tuesday night.

“All the deaths we’ve been through have really brought the kids closer together. They believe,” Nagy said. “You get to these (tournaments), and you hear, ‘this team went through so much adversity and we love each other.’ That stuff is easy to say after you’ve won. But I watched these guys when we were 2-7 and what they went through. They were doing that then, just that nobody was around for us to talk about it.”

The Raiders went 6-3 in February, finding their spirits again. “As my papa would always say, you’ve got to get back to work,” Holden said. In the semifinal and title games of the Horizon League, they put away Cleveland State and Northern Kentucky, two teams that had each beaten them twice back in the darker days. And now Wright State will make the fourth trip to the NCAA tournament in school history. This will be Nagy’s fifth, two with the Raiders and three with South Dakota State.

Only this time, he’s doing it in a beard. He started growing that in the fall, and now has apparently decided to keep it the rest of the season. Wife Jamie is not entirely on board.

“I keep telling him, `I’m the one that gets to kiss you, so I don’t know whose opinion you’re listening to but I’m ready (for it to go),” she said.

So there was time to laugh and time to cry Tuesday night for Wright State. There are many roads to March, and this one was particularly potholed. But the star-crossed Raiders have made it.

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