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Friday, April 18, 2014

Just another wild ride on Valley road


SPRINGFIELD, Mo. —A win on the road, no matter how you come about it, is always sweet.

Even when a 25-point lead in the second half nearly disappears. Even when you go almost seven minutes without scoring. Even when your opponent goes on a 15-0 run while you're fumbling around, holding on for dear life.

Wichita State was magnificent for 27 minutes Wednesday night at the JQH Arena against Missouri State. The last 13 were a thrill ride into the abyss of a near meltdown the likes of which would have made the movie "2012" look like a Sunday afternoon picnic.

You know all about the fine line, sometimes, between agony and ecstasy. The Shockers walked that line for most of the second half before pulling out a 65-62 win, then running in a dead sprint to the team bus so they could get out of town before anybody could take the victory away.

The icy roads and blowing snow were nothing compared to the second-half storm WSU had to weather. After scoring the first six points of the second half to take a 43-18 lead, I half-expected the coaching staff to put their feet up, light up cigars and ask for a waitress.

But WSU coach Gregg Marshall knew something the rest of us weren't so sure of. He knew the Bears, who were 8-0 at home before Wednesday's game and the surprise team of the Missouri Valley Conference, were going to make a run.

"They're so tough,'' Marshall said.

After WSU had thrown around the Bears for the longest time, Missouri State finally punched back with a comeback led by Jermaine Mallett, Kyle Weems and Adam Leonard.

The Shockers still led 51-34 after a Garrett Stutz basket with 11:20 to play. With 6:02 left, Missouri State trailed 51-49.

It wasn't just that WSU was in a scoring drought. For more than five minutes, the Shockers lost their composure and lost themselves.

The Bears' surge was strong and it overpowered WSU. Somebody had to do something out of the ordinary to right this sinking ship.

Clevin Hannah wasn't going to let this win go overboard.

He lined up a three-pointer from near the left baseline and let it fly. He knew it was good for the moment the basketball left his hand. And it was. It gave the Shockers a 54-49 lead, which they expanded to 62-53 before another Missouri State rally brought the Bears close.

A missed free throw by MSU's Nafis Ricks that would have tied the game with 12 seconds left rolled away. If it goes in... well, let's just say the chances of overtime are better than decent.

As it was, WSU's Graham Hatch rebounded Ricks' miss, was fouled and hit two clutch free throws with 10 seconds to play. The thrill ride wasn't over, but at least the Shockers could breathe.

Hannah, a senior point guard whose value to the Shockers cannot be overstated, knew how important it was for somebody to do something as the Shockers' lead evaporated.

"I wouldn't say we were in a panic or anything, I just think we got a little sped up on the offensive end,'' Hannah said. "They were giving us a lot of pressure and we made a couple of bonehead mistakes. But the shot I made was big-time for us. They had the momentum going but I was able to step in and make a big-time shot.''

He's right about that.

There was nothing that pointed to the Shockers being able to hold off Missouri State until Hannah made his shot. It was as if WSU had been shaking a new bottle of ketchup, trying to get some of the stuff out, when suddenly it poured.

What shouldn't be lost in the near-collapse is WSU's dominating first half.

The Shockers hit Missouri State with everything they had, pressuring the Bears into turnovers and hurried shots while taking a 37-18 lead. It might have been the best half of basketball WSU has played in Marshall's three seasons.

WSU scored inside and out, but the most impressive aspect of its dominant first half was defense. Missouri State made 6 of 23 shots and looked like a bunch of guys who got cut from their high school teams.

"We were the aggressors,'' Marshall said. "We weren't really shooting it that great, but we were getting a lot of transition baskets.''

It sounded like the 7,135 inside the arena were reading a book. Or taking a nap. The Shockers can't be better.

Marshall, though, insists he knew something was coming. Missouri State, he said, is too good at home and too tough-minded to just roll over. There was going to be a Bears push in the second half, he warned his team.

When you're up 25, though, it's a little difficult to acknowledge that life isn't good.

"But they were able to make their run,'' Marshall said. "And it was quite a run.''

Yes, it was.

It could have been a disaster for WSU, but none of the Shockers were having any of that.

It wasn't a disaster. It was a breakthrough Valley win on the road, a shot heard 'round the conference, a victory that thrusts the Shockers into MVC contention.

It showed, once again, why seats have edges.

Eagle sports columnist Bob Lutz co-hosts "Sports Daily" from 9-11 a.m. weekdays on KFH, 1240-AM and 98.7-FM. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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