By: Andrew Gavin (@GBGavin)
GREEN BAY, Wis. (GreenBayPhoenix.com) - Freshman Keifer Sykes (Chicago, Ill.) made two free throws with 3.0 seconds remaining Saturday afternoon, helping Green Bay (7-10, 3-4 HL) overcome a 17-point second half deficit and break a four-game losing streak with a 57-56 win over visiting Wright State (9-11, 4-4 HL) in front of a season-high 3,449 fans at the Resch Center.
"That was an emotional roller coaster ride, but I've got to say, out of all the players that made big plays - and there were a lot of them - I thought the number one player that made a play was that crowd," said head coach Brian Wardle. "Bottom line. We had a crowd for eight and a half straight minutes standing on their feet screaming for us and our young team just fed off of it and I thought it really flustered the opponent a little bit."
Julius Mays, who had 15 points to lead the Raiders, had given Wright State a 56-55 lead with a three-point with 12.8 seconds to play. Sykes dribbled up floor, gave it up to sophomore Kam Cerroni (Sussex, Wis.) before getting it back on the left wing. The freshman drove toward the basket before being tripped and fouled with three ticks remaining.
Sykes, who finished with a game-high 16 points and added six rebounds, had struggled from the foul line at times this season, but calmly walked to the line to give Green Bay the victory with two swished free throws.
"I've been struggling at the free throw line, but I know I can shoot free throws. I've been doing it all my life so I just came up to the line and was telling myself, 'I have to finish this game off, I have to get us this win, it's on me,'" Sykes said. "A few games down the stretch we had miscommunications and I was a part of those plays so I just wanted to finish the game and help us get the win."
The free throws ended a remarkable comeback for the Phoenix, who had endured four-straight tough losses entering Saturday. The team looked to be heading towards a much more lopsided loss when it fell behind 46-29 with 13:04 to play.
Cerroni gave the Phoenix life with back-to-back triples, his second and third of the half, sparking a 20-3 run that turned the deficit into a 49-49 game with 4:23 to play. Sykes had the last five points of the spurt, capping it with a layup.
Sophomore Alec Brown (Winona, Minn.) struggled offensively and didn't even take a shot after halftime, but the center was a difference maker on the defensive end, especially during the Phoenix run. Wright State went 0-for-6 from the field during the spurt, and Brown blocked four of the misses.
The 7-foot-1 Brown finished with 11 blocked shots, breaking the Horizon League, school and facility records for blocks in a game. He had seven of the blocks after halftime to break the single-game blocks record he had set with eight blocks against North Dakota on Dec. 20, 2010.
"He just kept saying in huddles, 'keep funneling them to me,'" said Wardle. "He had a rhythm defensively. He was blocking shots without fouling and staying away from bodies, and he felt really good about it."
The Sykes layup was the last Green Bay field goal, but aggressive plays and free throws helped the Phoenix hang tough. WSU went ahead 53-50 on a pair of Mays' free throws with 2:39 to play. Green Bay then sank five free throws, including two from Cerroni to put the hosts ahead for the first time since it was 5-4 early in the first half. Sykes hit the last of the five with 33 seconds left to make it 55-33.
Cerroni, who left the game with eight minutes to play after taking a blow to the face that left him bloodied before returning with just over three minutes to play, scored all 11 of his points after halftime.
"Those threes were really big. Every day in practice I tell Kam he doesn't shoot enough," Sykes said. "He has to help me get assists and I have to help him get going. He's one of our better shooters and I just told him to keep shooting after he missed the first one. He got two down and I just kept looking for him. Those threes were really big for him and it boosts his confidence for the upcoming games."
Green Bay overcame Wright State's 27-11 edge in points off turnovers and 51-31 margin in points from the field in large part due to its edge at the line. Green Bay was 26-of-35 from the line while WSU made 5-for-6 from the stripe. Sykes was 10-14 from the charity stripe while Brown knocked down 7-of-11 free throws.
Brown added nine points and eight rebounds to his 11 blocks, just missing a chance at an unconventional triple-double. The sophomore now has 55 blocks this season, just 12 shy of his single-season school record of 67 set in 2010-11.
Green Bay trailed 22-8 early in the game before closing to a 30-22 deficit at halftime to take some momentum. Wright State reclaimed it with the strong start to the second 20 minutes before the improbable Phoenix comeback.
"[This win] tells us a lot about the coaching staff and the players and the teammates that we have," Sykes said. "Everybody could have counted us out when we were down 17, but we just kept pushing through as a unit together."
Green Bay returns to action on Friday, Jan. 20 at Cleveland State at 7 p.m. CT in a nationally-televised game on ESPNU.
Season tickets, Pick 5 packages and single-game tickets for both programs are currently on sale with the Green Bay ticket office. For more information on ticket packages and promotions, please visit GreenBayPhoenix.com/tickets.
For the latest and most up-to-date information on Green Bay Athletics, please visit GreenBayPhoenix.com.
Follow us on Twitter: @GBPhoenix, @GBPhoenixMBB and @GBGavin.
Like Green Bay Phoenix men's basketball and Green Bay Phoenix Athletics on Facebook.