Scuffling through the middle of the season and struggling down the stretch, the UW-Milwaukee Panthers were looking for something, anything, to give them a sense of identity.

Just in the nick of time, they found it:


Toughness was senior forward Kyle Kelm, nearly redshirted this year after suffering through a frustrating junior season, scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds in the Horizon League championship game Tuesday night.

Toughness was 5-foot-10 senior guard Jordan Aaron, suspended for four games late in the season for violating a team rule, carrying the Panthers on his slender shoulders and being named tournament MVP.

Toughness was always-fired-up Matt Tiby crashing the boards and Malcolm Moore forgoing knee surgery to play big minutes off the bench.

Add it up and here's what you get:

A gritty 69-63 victory over Wright State that propelled the Panthers — winners of just eight games last year and picked to finish last in the conference — to a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

In a raucous atmosphere, before 7,784 hostile fans at the Nutter Center, the fifth-seeded Panthers (21-13) led from the opening tip to the final buzzer to become the first team seeded lower than third to win the Horizon League tournament in its current format.

Milwaukee will be making its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance and its first since 2006. The Panthers probably will be seeded 15th or 16th.

"If we could play tomorrow, we'd play tomorrow," said coach Rob Jeter. "The NCAA picks up the full tab so we'll go wherever. We're just so happy to represent the city, the university and so many people that have stuck with us."

In beating third-seeded Wright State on its home court, the Panthers completed an impressive four-game run. They knocked off Detroit and Valparaiso before beating top-seeded UW-Green Bay, 73-66, in overtime on the road to advance to the championship game.

Milwaukee led by double digits in every game. It was an improbable turnaround for a team that lost four consecutive games near the end of the season, including an ugly 80-58 defeat to conference cellar-dweller Illinois-Chicago at home Feb. 25.

"Congratulations to Milwaukee," Wright State coach Billy Donlon said. "They've done a terrific job. Their toughness, their resiliency, it's a great credit to those kids and to Rob Jeter and their coaching staff. To go to Green Bay and win and to come here and win...phenomenal job."

The senior-dominated Raiders (20-14) lost in the tournament title game for the second straight year.

"It'll be painful for a very long time," Donlon said. "There's no getting around that. There's nothing like cutting down somebody's nets on their court."

The Panthers did exactly that and then retreated to their locker room, where their joyous celebration could be heard through a brick wall. Aaron came to the postgame news conference with a net draped around his neck.

"I might wear this for two weeks," he said with a grin.

Milwaukee got off to a phenomenal start, making seven of its first 10 shots, with six players scoring, to build a 19-7 lead 6½ minutes into the game.

"We knew coming into an atmosphere like this with a great team on the other end we had to throw the first punch," Aaron said. "We wanted to come out and get our first blow and we started the game tremendously."

Clearly rattled, the Raiders missed eight consecutive shots during that early stretch and threw the ball around the gym.

"Credit Milwaukee. Credit their urgency," Donlon said. "Certainly the start didn't help us, but that's what they've done to everybody in this tournament starting with Detroit. They've held people anywhere from nine to 13 points in the first 10 minutes of halves for four straight games. Credit those guys."

The Raiders closed to within 32-27 late in the half but then Moore and Kelm went to work inside.

First Moore fought for two offensive rebounds and was fouled on his second put-back attempt; he made both free throws. Kelm converted a three-point play, then rebounded his own miss and scored on a nifty left-handed shot. Moore finished the half by grabbing another offensive rebound on Kelm's miss and scoring to give UWM a 43-33 lead.

"Malcolm Moore is a tough kid," Jeter said. "He is in a lot of ways our MVP along with our trainer. He's been injured all year but it's, 'Coach, I want to play. I want to help you win.' He needs surgery on his knee but he decided to play.

"That's just toughness. That's sacrifice. That sums up Malcolm. Very proud of him."