It’s a Cinderella story, and the NCAA Tournament has not yet even started. They were picked dead last in the Horizon League’s preseason poll, well behind 8th place Detroit. They were discounted as a Horizon League Tournament threat after losing four of their last five regular season games. Even after knocking off regular season champion Green Bay on the road in the semifinals, they entered the Horizon League championship game a sizable underdog.
Now, the Milwaukee Panthers are Horizon League champions. The Panthers defeated Wright State, 68-63, in Tuesday’s championship game, and on Sunday they will hear their name called during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
But all along, head coach Rob Jeter knew his team had the potential for something special.
“From day one, you could tell these guys liked each other,” Jeter said in the post-game press conference. “It’s not really talked enough about in sports. A key ingredient to winning is you have to have a group of guys that really care about each other.”
But day one did not go too well for Milwaukee. The Panthers opened the season at Loyola (Chicago), the last-place team in the Missouri Valley Conference, and lived up to their preseason expectation with a four-point loss. Then the Panthers rattled off four straight wins, and by the start of conference play they were 10-4. More than halfway through the Horizon League season, they held a respectable 6-5 league record.
Then the wheels fell off. Milwaukee dropped four straight, including a 22-point loss to last-place UIC, which entered that contest 0-14 in conference play. A win at Detroit to end the regular season earned them the No. 5 seed for the conference tournament with a 7-9 record.
“We have fought through a lot of adversity,” senior guard Jordan Aaron said Aaron, an All-Horizon League First Team member, averaged 20.5 points in Milwaukee’s Horizon League Tournament run. “We’ve been at our highest and at our lowest and we never gave up on one another. These guys next to me and those guys in the locker room, they are tremendous teammates. Coming into this tournament it came down to guarding men and seeing how tough you are.”
Even the championship game Tuesday had some highs and lows.
The Panthers dominated the first 10 minutes. Milwaukee’s 3-pointers were finding the bottom of the net, and Wright State could get nothing going offensively.
Milwaukee held a 24-9 lead.
The Raiders made a run with their home crowd supporting them to cut the lead to five points going into the final four minutes of the half. Once again, the Panthers withstood adversity and took a 10-point lead into halftime.
Milwaukee had the upper-hand at the start of the second half as well, building a 65-52 lead at the 8:10 mark. But Wright State, the seven-point favorite, would not go away. The Raiders trailed by only four points in the final minute.
But Aaron stepped to the foul line and made two big free throws, and then the Panthers forced a pair of missed shots to earn a ticket to the Big Dance.
“Everything has seemed to come together,” Jeter said. “There hasn’t been anything they’ve slacked in. That’s the toughness that’s required to represent the Horizon League as champions. We never rattled.”
Aaron transferred to Milwaukee from Southeastern Community College in Iowa. Last year, his first as a Panther, he suffered through an 8-24 season. Regardless of what comes in the NCAA Tournament, he will leave as a champion.
At the press conference, Aaron wore around his neck the net, which the team had cut down on Wright State’s home floor moments earlier.
“I might wear this for two weeks,” he said.