FAIRBORN — “They say Christmas comes once, but I think it just arrived one more time.”
Those were the words of television announcer Marty Bannister as the final seconds ticked off the game clock and the Wright State Raiders defeated the No. 6 ranked Michigan State Spartans on Dec. 30, 1999.
An extra delivery from Santa is exactly what the Raiders needed, after struggling to a 3-8 record the first half of the 1999-2000 season.
The Spartans, on the other hand, arrived at the Nutter Center 9-3, had already beaten No. 2 North Carolina and No. 5 Kansas in the first month of the season, and were coming off a 33-5 season in which they lost in the national semifinal game against Duke. Five of their top six scorers returned, making them a consensus top-5 team in pre-season polls.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo liked to schedule one game near his players’ home towns. In this instance, former Trotwood-Madison star Andre Hutson was a junior on the Spartans roster.
The Raiders were led by 6-foot-6 junior forward Kevin Melson and 6-foot-10 center Israel Sheinfeld. Melson would be named first team all-league his junior and senior seasons. Both players would have outstanding three-year careers that saw them reach the 1,000 point threshold.
Despite their record and being a 23-point underdog, the Wright State players came in with a surprising level of optimism. The Raiders were coming off a 58-50 win over St. Mary’s (Calif.), a stunning 40-point turnaround following a 32-point beatdown just 10 days before. Joe Bills, a freshman point guard on that team, remembers, “We were riding a little bit of confidence (from that victory), even though we knew how good they were.”
“I knew that we could play with them,” Melson said. “I played with most of their players growing up, so I knew we had enough talent to at least hang with them.”
A three from walk-on Tyson Freeman in the first minute, followed shortly by a Bruno Peterson dunk not only boosted the confidence of the players, but also got a near-capacity crowd involved very early and helped the Raiders race out to a 10-2 lead.
But veteran teams accustomed to playing in hostile environments don’t wilt easily.
The Spartans were loaded with talent and known for their defensive tenacity and strong rebounding. They played the first half of the season without point guard Mateen Cleaves, who was out with a stress fracture, but still had future NBA first round selections Morris Peterson and Jason Richardson.
Head coach Ed Schilling and his Raiders staff instituted a game plan focused on slowing down the pace and spreading out the Spartans on offense.
“We had to combat their extreme physicality and athleticism. We played a lot of 3-2 zone to spread them out so that they weren’t so dominant on the offensive glass,” recalled Schilling. “On the other end of the court, we tried to make them play defense for an extended period of time. We used almost the whole shot clock each possession.”
Michigan State chipped away at Wright State’s lead and would take its first lead with two minutes left in the half. They used a 12-0 run at the end of the half to take a 32-26 lead at halftime.
The Spartans extended the lead to eight early in the second half before Wright State recovered after baskets by Melson and Sheinfeld.
“As the game wore on we got more and more confidence,” Melson said.
Michigan State’s Mike Chappell hit a big three with 4:42 left in the game to break a tie and give the Spartans a 47-44 lead. Neither team would make another field goal the remainder of the game. Marcus May went 4-for-4 from the line and the Raiders hit nine of 10 free throws as they outscored the Spartans 9-2 the rest of the way.
Fans stormed the court to celebrate the 53-49 victory.
Bills, who played all 40 minutes with only one turnover, remembers Melson’s impact in the game.
“He was one of the few guys we had that could match the athleticism of Michigan State. I think he gave all the other players a lot of confidence when he was out there with us. He put us in position late in the game to win,” Bills said.
The game was unquestionably the high point for the Raiders that season, and the low point for the Spartans. Wright State finished 11-17 overall, and sixth in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. Conversely, Michigan State would go 23-3 the rest of the way and beat Florida in the national championship.
After the game Izzo was complimentary of the Raiders.
“We were totally outplayed from start to finish,” he said. “There’s no question the better team won tonight.”
For the players, coaching staff, and the 9,000 plus fans who were in the Nutter Center, it was an unforgettable night. The moment still brings a smile to Bills’ face.
“To be able to have people come up to me today, 18 years later, to talk to me about one of my best memories at Wright State, it’s a special thing,” he said.
Wright State is celebrating its 50-year anniversary as an independent institution. To mark the occasion, a series of stories on the history of Raider Men’s Basketball will appear on the Wright State University athletics website wsuraiders.com.