DAYTON — The month of March, even midway through, is all about madness.
For Wright State University junior Tanner Holden, it’s been a completely “crazy” couple of unforgettable weeks.
That’s because, as of Wednesday evening, Holden was officially dancing in Dayton —as the Raiders played a “home” game in the annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament.
Well, at least it was an official NCAA Tournament tilt —part of the First Four matchups inside the University of Dayton Arena.
And, for those curious, the Wright State campus — and the Raiders’ home court of the Nutter Center — is an estimated 12 miles or 20 minutes drive to the University of Dayton, and UD Arena adjacent to Welcome Stadium.
The six-foot and six-inch and 185-pound Holden, the former Wheelersburg High School two-sport star, is completing his third full season with the Raiders —with no redshirt seasons and is in fact Wright State’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder.
Holden is scoring 19.8 points per game and averaging 7.2 rebounds, while teammate Grant Basile is averaging 16.9 points and 7.1 rebounds over the last 10 Raider games.
But Holden, throughout the Horizon League Tournament and now nationally more recognized within the past 10 days, has been the 21-13 Raiders’ center of attention —given his media appearances and interviews ahead of Wednesday night’s First Four bout with fellow 16-seed Bryant.
He took time Tuesday afternoon out of his busy schedule to speak via telephone with The Portsmouth Daily Times, and the word “crazy” kept coming up.
Holden is already an all-Horizon League freshman team member, and as a sophomore was named to the all-Horizon second-team unit.
But, playing in the NCAA Tournament is an even greater thrill ride.
“It’s pretty crazy around here. But being in the ‘Big Dance’ is exciting and a dream come true. I came to Wright State with the goal of winning the conference (Horizon League) tournament and playing in the NCAA Tournament. Our season has been full of ups and downs and lessons learned, but we have stuck together, been there for each other, kept working, kept progressing, overcoming a lot of adversity throughout the season and the conference tournament, and now here we are,” said Holden.
Indeed, the Raiders’ road to the NCAA Tournament in 2022 hasn’t been easy —as the fourth-seeded Raiders reached the conference championship game in Indianapolis against third-seeded Northern Kentucky.
With the conference tournament champion automatically qualifying for the 68-team NCAA field, Wright State stared square at a 16-point deficit with only a dozen minutes remaining.
But Holden had the hot hand with Wright State’s dramatic comeback run of 14 unanswered points, slicing the Raider deficit down to 67-66 — with eight minutes and 37 seconds to play.
Holden then drove for a reverse layup to lift the Raiders in front 63-61, meshed nine of 11 free throws towards his 19 points, and teammate Trey Calvin canned a jumper just inside the free-throw line with 10-and-a-half tics to go —officially completing the rally.
“The conference tournament was crazy. The last two games we came back from double-digit deficits to win. Down 16 with 12 minutes left in the championship was really crazy, but I did what I had to do to help my team come back and win. We all did,” said Holden, who also made off with three key steals against NKU. “Scoring, rebounding, making free throws, playing defense, doing whatever we had to do to get that ‘W’. These chances to make the NCAA Tournament don’t come around often. We didn’t want to see this chance slip away.”
With the 72-71 come-from-behind triumph, Wright State punched an NCAA Tournament ticket for the fourth time in program history —and third as conference tournament champions of the Horizon League (2007, 2018 and 2022).
Speaking of that 2007 Raider club, another Wheelersburg Pirate performed at a high level —that being Andrew Burleson.
As for the Raiders of a decade-and-a-half later, James Manns — a redshirt senior —is the only player on the roster returning from the 2018 team which won the Horizon League crown.
Although that was Manns’ redshirt season, Holden said he has given good advice to the remainder of the Raiders — as they prepared in Dayton for Wednesday’s game.
“James just told us to truly enjoy this moment. Don’t be satisfied because there’s a lot of work to do and we want to win games, but be happy you’ve made it this far and do feel a sense of accomplishment, because these chances just don’t happen very often,” he said.
Even more rare, the Raiders were in fact playing in Dayton —despite being in the First Four and being a 16-seed.
“That part of it is pretty cool,” said Holden. “It’s about as close to an actual home game in the tournament as you can get. The city of Dayton and the Beavercreek and Fairborn (Dayton suburbs) areas are close and they support us so well. We’re hoping to fill the arena up with Wright State fans, and they will bring a lot of energy to us.”
While Wright State’s “home” crowd will bring the electricity, Holden brought nationwide numbers to TruTV viewers.
He has scored 20 or more points a Horizon League-best 19 times this campaign, and also tossed in a 30-point game this season.
His 201 made free throws on 257 attempts for 79-percent ranks first (made free throws) and second (most free throw attempts) in the entire country for Division I, as his 674 total points is eighth —and his almost 20-points per-game average is 22nd.
He has 230 total field goals on 465 attempts for 49-and-a-half percent, with 13 made three-pointers on 39 tries for an even 33-percent.
Again, the word “crazy” came up.
“Stats like those are crazy when you think about them and you hear about them, but none of this is possible without my teammates,” he said, simply. “Basketball has individual numbers, but it’s a team game that matters more. My teammates, my family and those in my circle are the ones that truly make me successful.”
And, that all goes back to his dominating days with Wheelersburg.
A standout two-sport athlete, Holden was a three-time Division III all-Ohioan in basketball, including his final two seasons as a member of the all-state first team.
As a junior, he averaged almost 18 points and 11 rebounds per contest, while scoring 27 points per game as a senior — and being named the Southeast District Division III Player of the Year.
In both instances, Wheelersburg won Division III Southeast District championships, and was regional runner-up to Harvest Prep in his senior season.
For football, he was the 2017 Division V Co-Offensive Player of the Year in the state — and was so important to the Pirates’ state championship club that fall.
Needless to say, it’s “crazy” —although not surprising —he’s leading the way with Wright State in “The Big Dance”.
“Twenty minutes from campus, we’re going out there not just satisfied we made it here. We want to win Wednesday, then go out West and make the most of this tournament experience,” said Holden. “It’s an exciting time, a crazy time, and one we’re not taking for granted.”
The winner of the Wright State and Bryant battle travels Thursday to play on Friday night in San Diego, Calif. —against the South Region’s top-seeded squad in Arizona.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved