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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wichita State knows senior-day loss would dampen MVC celebration

By Paul Suellentrop
The Wichita Eagle

On Saturday afternoon, most Wichita State fans will sit through 40 minutes of basketball against Drake in order to enjoy the real fun. Senior day. Cutting down the nets. Celebrating a Missouri Valley Conference title.

Party like it’s 2006.

“There’s no party until we win that game,” senior guard Joe Ragland said.

Thanks for the reality check, Joe. Everybody who remembers the cheers, laughs, ladders and scissors from the 2006 title celebration, cool down.

No. 19 WSU (25-4, 15-2 MVC) must handle Drake (16-13, 9-8) to avoid an awkward moment. Five seniors who helped revive the program and lead WSU back to the top of the conference and into the NCAA Tournament surely don’t want to lose their final game at Koch Arena.

Unlike past seasons, this is the final home game of the season. Guaranteed. Ragland, Garrett Stutz, Ben Smith, Toure Murry and David Kyles say goodbye before hitting the road for tournament time in March. There will be no second acts in the CBI or NIT.

“It’s going to be special, and it’s that much more special because it’s senior night,” Kyles said after Wednesday’s 68-55 win at Illinois State.

Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. game sets up similarly to the one in 2006.

The Shockers clinched a share of the MVC title with a win at Drake three days earlier. They returned to Koch Arena to play in front of a crowd crazy to celebrate WSU’s first title since 1983 and send off a senior class that included center Paul Miller. Last-place Illinois State — with current Shocker assistant coach Dana Ford in the lineup — made it interesting before playing its appointed role. WSU won 64-57. Players celebrated with fans. Fans recorded every moment on cell phones. Miller told the story of how he committed to former coach Mark Turgeon on that same court five years earlier. Turgeon reminded everyone how voters picked WSU fifth in the preseason poll.

Then the nets came down. Turgeon later sent pieces of the net to former players, the ones who helped build the program.

“I remember we struggled early, and then we finally decided to start playing the way we were supposed to,” former Shocker Ryan Martin said. “It was more nerves than pressure. We did know what was at stake. We all wanted to win it so bad for Coach. We knew he deserved it.”

Six years later, the current Shockers will likely think many of the same thoughts.

“I remember everybody rushing the floor,” Martin, now an assistant coach at Northern Colorado, said. “I remember P.J. (Cousinard) and Cam (Ledford) on the scorer’s table. That’s what you play college basketball for. You play to win championships and cut down nets and play in the NCAA Tournament.”

Perhaps it is good that Drake is the opponent. The Shockers can’t forget the 93-86 triple-overtime loss on Jan. 28 in Des Moines. WSU shot miserably — 31 of 76 and 7 of 25 from three-point range. Their 18 turnovers (in 55 minutes) match a season high.

Drake forward Ben Simons scored 29 points. He missed five games with mononucleosis before playing against Southern Illinois on Wednesday. He scored 14 points to help Drake win 78-63.

“We have to beat them,” Ragland said. “The game that we lost at their place, we made a lot of mental mistakes. When they come to our place, we’re going to have to be ready.”

Drake is playing for bigger stakes than the Shockers. The Bulldogs are tied for third with Missouri State, but could drop as low as eighth with a loss. They are one of six teams that could finish 9-9 and leave tournament seedings to tiebreakers. Two of those six teams will join No. 9 Southern Illinois and No. 10 Bradley in the Thursday play-in games in St. Louis and face four games in four days to win the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

WSU has clinched the top seed, with Creighton locked in at No. 2. The top six teams begin tournament play on March 2 at the Scottrade Center. WSU’s game is at 12:05 p.m.

Check Paul Suellentrop’s Shocker blog at blogs.kansas.com/shockwaves. Reach him at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com.

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