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Mike Lopresti | | March 17, 2022

Magical night in Dayton spans far beyond Wright State's First Four victory

Tanner Holden scores 37 in Wright State's first-ever NCAA tournament win

DAYTON, Ohio — Now here, truly, was a big night for college basketball in the city of Dayton.

On the court at the University of Dayton Arena Wednesday, Wright State was running over Bryant in the First Four 93-82. The Raiders, their campus only 12 miles away, had never won an NCAA tournament game in their history. They have now. To get the chance to do it in front of hometown fans . . . the March gods were working overtime on this one for Wright State.

“Obviously it wasn’t a crazy far trip for them to make today,” said the Raiders’ Grant Basile. “It was pretty neat to get the first one for our school in our backyard.”

Meanwhile, this score in from up I-75 in Toledo: The Dayton men — the team with 11 freshmen on the roster, the last team left out of the NCAA tournament bracket — were rolling over the Rockets 74-55 in the first round of the NIT. Dayton was a top seed in the NIT and should have been playing at home. But the Flyers’ arena was kind of busy Wednesday night.

“It’s part of the deal of hosting this,” Dayton athletic director Neil Sullivan said.

MEN'S BRACKET 2022: Check out the 2022 men's tournament bracket

While all that was happening, waiting to tip off in Ames, Iowa: The 25-5 Dayton women against DePaul in the First Four. The Flyers would win that one, too, 88-57.

Montgomery County, Ohio hit the trifecta.

Especially Wright State. The Raiders have had a hard time getting Dayton on the schedule, so UD Arena might as well be in Delaware, rather than a 15-minute drive away. Tim Finke, who handled the bulk of the defense against Bryant’s and the nation’s leading scorer Peter Kiss, said he had never been in the place in is life before this week. For Wright State! chants to be heard bouncing around UD Arena was nearly surreal.

And there were more special items to the night for the Raiders. Tanner Holden had 37 points, missing the First Four scoring record by one. That included 14 of 16 free throws, which is standard operating procedure for Holden. He now has 215 free throws for the season, 11 more than anyone else in the nation. He’s making 79 percent of his attempts.

“Staying aggressive,” he said of why he spends so much of his time at the line. “If you’re aggressive, the refs have to call it. They’re free throws for a reason. No one’s guarding you, you have to make the most of them.”

Guard Trey Calvin scored 21 points, even though he had such a stomach bug, he was vomiting after the game. The idea of not playing never crossed his mind. “My first March Madness game? I’ve waited my whole life for this.”

WOMEN'S BRACKET 2022: Here's the 2022 women's tournament bracket

Finke had his hands full with Kiss, who scored 28 points. But it took the Bulldogs star 25 shots to do it. “I never worry about how many points a guy scores,” coach Scott Nagy said. “I always tell our players it’s how many shots are we going to make him take.”

Which is why Finke said he was “pretty interested’ in the field goal attempt column on the stat sheet. But not as much as another number. “More than anything, this was the first win ever for Wright State.”

Indeed. And a short drive from home with an army of fans to watch it, something very few teams get to experience.

“Obviously we were fortunate to play in Dayton. And at some point it feels a little unfair, but that’s the way it worked out,” Nagy said. “The first thing I said to the players, this is the first one and it’s always going to be the first one. Where we did it, how we did it, all those things, it’s a lifetime moment for these guys. And it is for me, too.”

Watching his happy neighbors was Sullivan, who wouldn’t have minded being with one of his own teams, but duty called. “We had the chief of staff of the Air Force here. The governor was here today. (NCAA president) Mark Emmert. It was appropriate for me to be here,” he said. That’s why he was plugged in all night to the ESPN Plus app on his phone, following every Flyer basket.

But it’s the First Four, which means the spotlight is on Dayton. Always has, except for last year’s all-Indy pandemic event. “We’re built for March, it’s kind of built into our DNA. It’s what we do,” Sullivan said. “You always want to play, that’s the most important thing, but we’re also very proud to host.”

FOLLOW THE ACTION: Click here for the entire 2022 men's tournament schedule

With two Flyer victory romps going on elsewhere, his only nervous moment came when a brief power outage caused the arena lights to flicker during the Wright State-Bryant game. For a while, with the lights pulsating like a strobe, the game had the ambience of a 1980s disco, though workers were quick to fix it. “Puts a pit in your stomach,” Sullivan said. “We’re prepared. For years we’ve always had the power company here and it’s never been needed. Tonight, it was needed.”

About everything else was blue skies for anything to do with college basketball in the Dayton area. But the tournament now goes on.

“You don’t have much time to celebrate.” Holden said. The Raiders were soon headed for the airport and a flight to San Diego, where No. 1 seed Arizona is waiting to play them Friday. From a magical night in their own backyard, to a long way from home.

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