NORMAL, Ill. — Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall winds up to slap the hand of assistant coach Chris Jans, then bounces into his seat on the bench with a big smile and elbows assistant Greg Heiar.
Senior Toure Murry raises his index finger while he watches the final seconds tick away. Two rows of fans behind the bench scream and cheer.
That is what it looks like when a team clinches a conference title.
What does it sound like? Players talking about championship rings. A lot of laughter and celebrating in the locker room and Marshall’s phone blowing up with congratulatory texts.
The 19th-ranked Shockers defeated Illinois State 68-55 on Wednesday night at Redbird Arena to claim sole ownership of the Missouri Valley Conference title. After a 17-game grind, WSU could relax a bit and appreciate the accomplishment.
“I just remember in June, my first day stepping on campus.… me and Toure (Murry) and (Garrett) Stutz from Day 1 talking about how we wanted to get to the (NCAA) tournament and do big things,” senior guard David Kyles said. “This is step one. It’s a three-step process for me — this, the Valley Tournament and the NCAAs.”
WSU (25-4, 15-2 MVC) won its seventh Valley title with a starting lineup with four seniors driven by previous close calls. The Shockers finished second in 2010 and 2011.
“It’s a great achievement, something we should have had last year and let slip away,” Stutz said. “This year, we took care of business.”
Illinois State (17-12, 8-9) can attest to that. The Redbirds played well. Coach Tim Jankovich couldn’t fault their effort and liked their execution for the most part. Foul trouble hampered leading scorer Jackie Carmichael and none of his starters reached double figures.
Even with those issues, the Redbirds rallied several times, most notably after falling behind by 17 midway through the first half.
Yet the Redbirds never got closer than nine points in the final 10 minutes with the Shockers methodically beating down every push.
“Every time we got in a threatening situation, they scored,” Jankovich said. “Every time we would get on that doorstep, it wouldn’t happen.”
The Shockers continued a roll of red-hot shooting by making 10 of 23 three-pointers, 5 of 10 in the second half. Joe Ragland led WSU with 14 points. Stutz added 12, eight in the second half. He also grabbed 14 rebounds for his 11th double-double this season.
Ben Smith, after missing all five shots in the first half, scored 11 points. Demetric Williams scored all 11 of his points in the first half.
WSU did its best work during a second-half run that mimicked its blitz at Davidson in Saturday’s 91-74 win. The Shockers led 47-39 with 12:42 to play after Illinois State’s Bryant Allen made a three-pointer to juice up the crowd.
Things like that don’t bother the Shockers, who keep playing and waiting for a mistake or two and make them hurt.
Stutz followed in a Smith miss for a 10-point lead. Then Kyles stole a lazy pass near the three-point line and hammered in a one-handed dunk. After the Redbirds failed to score on two possessions, Ragland made a three, courtesy of nifty passing from Murry and Kyles. Another turnover led to a Smith three and a 57-40 lead — capping a 9-1 run in just under three minutes.
“They’re a crazy shooting team,” Jankovich said.
Crazy as in crazy good, not crazy out of control. WSU ran when the percentages worked in its favor and patiently ran its offense to get good shots the rest of the time.
“We capitalized on all their mistakes and got out in transition,” Murry said. “We did a pretty good job finding the open man.”
The Shockers opened up a first-half lead after an ill-advised shot by ISU’s Bryant Allen. He airballed a stepback three and WSU pushed the ball the other way for an open three by Williams to go up 29-20. Williams added a three-point play for a 32-22 lead and a runner to put the Shockers ahead 34-22 at halftime.