UE won its first road game Saturday since Jan. 9 and notched back-to-back victories for the first time since Jan. 13 in a 70-58 win over Wright State at the Nutter Center in Dayton, Ohio.
While freshman D.J. Balentine scored 18 points off the bench, it was in relief of senior Ned Cox, the Aces’ second-leading scorer who went down in the first half with a foot injury.
Cox walked out of the locker room wear a boot on his left leg. He said he hadn’t yet been x-rayed. Coach Marty Simmons on the injury: “I don’t even know to be honest. I haven’t talked to anybody. They just said he was unavailable. I went to the radio show right after the game and I’m here right now, so I don’t even know. Somebody said the bottom of his foot.”
Balentine lifted UE a number of times after the Aces nearly blew a 17-3 lead. He scored eight straight at one point, hit a 3-pointer before the halftime buzzer and sank another long ball late in the second half. “Just to be more aggressive,” is what Balentine said he was trying to do. “What Ned does out there – plus some more. I try to every game, but since I actually needed to be out there, it was just be more in control – more aggressive…Just like Colt, he loves to score and I love to score. Me wanting to score and having the ball in my hands frees him up and gives him a break. When it’s his turn, it gives him a bump to do what he does.”
Wright State played shorthanded as well. Leading scorer Cole Darling (11.3 points per game), a junior forward who hurt his foot in practice this week, wasn’t available as well as second-leading scorer Reggie Arceneaux (9.7 points per game), the Raiders’ starting point guard who hasn’t come back from a concussion suffered in a Feb. 12 game. “We have good enough players who played tonight to win that game,” said Wright State coach Billy Donlon. “It had nothing to do with Cole and Reggie not playing. I mean it. I also will not disrespect the effort with which the Evansville kids played with, and I also will remind you that their second-best player played nine minutes. I’m not their coach. Based on their scoring and based on what I saw on film, I think Cox Is their second-best player.”
Donlon on Balentine: “As I told our guy in the locker room, their second-best player (Cox) played nine minutes. And D.J. Balentine’s a guy we really recruited very, very hard. JT Yoho said yes first. That was the last (scholarship) we had. I’m not saying we would have beaten Evansville for him, but we went all the way to the wire with D.J. Balentine. He’s a terrific player. He’s got a great family. He’ll probably be another guy who scores 1,000-plus in an Evansville uniform, so give him a lot of credit.”
Are the Aces playing their best basketball with two regular-season games left? “I think so,” Balentine said. “Coach was really excited about this road win. It was the first one in a long time. But he was really excited about going to Wichita State and finishing this streak out.”
Added senior Colt Ryan, who led UE with 21 points: “It was a great win for us, but we’ve got to build on it. The season’s not over. We’ve got two more conference games that are big conference games that we need to win and go from there…I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s coming to an end, and I just want to make sure I get all out of it that I can. And then everyone’s responded for us. Coach has really challenged everyone on the team. He does it at the end of the year – says, ‘Play for your seniors.’ And I want to make sure I play for them, too.”
Simmons on moving forward to a road game at Wichita State and the regular-seaso finale Saturday against Indiana State: “I think we’re confident. Our mentality has always been that we can get better, and that’s how we have to be. We have to continue to improve. We’ve had our share of tough losses, and it’s nice to see our players get rewarded because they’ve stayed the course, they continue to work hard every day, and it’s nice to see them happy in the locker room.”