|Posted by Brian Dickmann on March 9, 2016 at 5:15 PM|
Photo: Duane Burleson / Associated Press
Linc Darner knew it even before he coached Green Bay in their first game this season: the only thing that mattered was getting the Phoenix back to the Big Dance.
“I think we can get Green Bay back where it needs to be, and that's in the NCAA Tournament,” Darner said back in October. “It's been 20 years. It's not like it's been 2 or 3 years, it’s been awhile and that's our goal we've stressed since day one."
That goal was reached Tuesday night in an emphatic way.
Green Bay clinched its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1996 with a 78-69 victory over Wright State at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
The victory capped off a stretch of four wins in four days and clinched the program’s first Horizon League Tournament championship since 1995, Green Bay’s inaugural year in the conference.
“What an unbelievable job by our guys,” Darner said after the game. “The way they played here lately and battled through everything and compete, four games in four days, found a way to get it done once again.”
Seniors Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse, playing in their 2nd straight Horizon League title game, came up big all tournament long including Tuesday night. Fouse paced the Phoenix balanced scoring attack with 16 points and 7 rebounds while Love contributed 10 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and a steal.
The duo had lost in the conference tournament three straight years in heartbreaking fashion after coming so close each season.
“Great win for these 2 guys,” Darner said of his seniors. “They’ve been very, very close and we got over the hump. We talked about adversity all year, that we were going to hit adversity at certain times during the year and we had to fight through it and believe in what we wanted to do.”
“These guys have believed in our system all year when a lot of people probably thought ‘well you can’t win the big ones playing the way you guys play.’ I think they proved everybody wrong with that because I think you can win with playing the way we play.”
All five Green Bay starters scored in double figures including Khalil Small (10 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks), Kenneth Lowe (12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks), and Charles Cooper (15 points including 2 highlight reel dunks).
The Phoenix again only went 8 players deep but showed little sign of fatigue. Green Bay got bench contributions from Jamar Hurdle (6 points and 4 rebounds in 11 minutes) and Tevin Findlay (7 points in 10 minutes) as well as Turner Botz (2 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist in 19 minutes).
The 8 man rotation has been key in securing four straight wins and playing 165 minutes of basketball with little to no rest.
“I thought we played extremely well again tonight,” said Darner. “I thought we’ve played extremely well all four games. I know the first game we didn’t shoot the ball well but I think that may have to do with the first time of playing in here. But I thought if we could get by the first one we could shoot the ball a lot better and I think we showed that the last couple games as we shot it extremely well.”
But after the game the spotlight shone brightest on the Green Bay seniors. At the end of the day it was those two who had worked so hard to get back to this point and finally take the next step, something Darner promised them he would help them accomplish before the season.
“It’s probably one of the best days of my life,” Fouse said. “We worked hard all year….we’ve been working hard all four years now and it finally paid off.”
“Coach Darner, he’s a great coach. He got us here. He told us from day one he was going to get me and Carrington to the NCAA Tournament and he kept his word.”
Fouse, Love, and Cooper were named to the Horizon League’s all-tournament team with Fouse being named the tournament MVP.
Unlike two years ago, the Phoenix won’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday. They know they’re in and now just wait to see when, where, and who they will be playing.
Green Bay will have plenty of confidence after marching through the inaugural Motor City Madness. The Phoenix will enter the NCAA Tournament having won 8 of their last 9 games
“It was just trust,” said Fouse. “He [Darner] talked with confidence, you could hear it in his voice. He makes you believe what he says. That’s what helped us out all year is just hearing his voice and telling us we were going to get this NCAA Tournament bid and that’s where we’re at.”
Darner’s promise at the beginning of the season paved the way for Tuesday night’s championship victory. But it was up the players to buy in and make it happen.
“I had two options, either to say he’s full of crap or believe him from day one,” Love said. “It’s easy to see which route I chose.”