KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A 10-0 start remains a great goal, one that will wait for another season at Wichita State.
The 23rd-ranked Shockers lost for the first time this season, falling 69-60 to Tennessee on Thursday at Thompson-Boling Arena. Though they didn’t get any experience dissecting a loss in the first nine games, the Shockers knew exactly what it cost them.
WSU (9-1) needed to shoot a little better, make a few more free throws and foul a lot less to win on the road against a good team. The Shockers let the Volunteers (5-3) disrupt their offense, especially in the game’s final 10 minutes, when they scored a paltry 10 points and gave away a hard-earned lead.
“Too many turnovers, and didn’t make enough free throws,” WSU center Carl Hall said. “We didn’t execute our plays.”
Winning 10 straight games to open the season requires a rare combination of skill and good fortune. The Shockers ran out of both against a bigger team that needed a win after losing two games in a row and failing to score 40 points in either. WSU went 9-0 for the fourth time in program history and lost that 10th game for the fourth time. Losing to Tennessee is no crime, but the Shockers wanted to give it a better shot. Hall scored 21 points, tying his career high, but got little help. Leading scorer Cleanthony Early, benched often by fouls, scored two points in 17 minutes. No other Shocker reached double figures.
“We missed a lot of free throws, we missed a lot of easy bunnies,” WSU guard Demetric Williams said.
Teams tend to do that against Tennessee, which makes its mark with coach Cuonzo Martin’s physical defense. WSU made 21 of 55 shots (38.2 percent) and 6 of 20 threes (30 percent), which is a better percentage than most teams shoot from behind the arc against the Volunteers. The Shockers did the right things to win a grinder until midway through the second half. They led 50-46 with 10:31 to play when Tennessee’s defense took over.
WSU scored one basket — a layup by Jake White off a nifty pass from Ron Baker — in the next five minutes. That allowed the Volunteers to take a 58-52 lead and grab the momentum at the foul line. Tennessee broke a 59-all tie at the line with 3:29 to play and finished off the Shockers by making nine of 12 free throws. WSU’s lone point in the final three minutes came on a free throw by Baker with 1:03 to play.
“It got away from us late a little bit,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We have to do a better job of defending the foul line. They shot great free throws and got there way too many times."
WSU forward Evan Wessel missed his second game with a broken finger. Center Ehimen Orukpe, slowed by a sprained right ankle, played seven minutes.
Tennessee bulled its way to the foul line with guard Trae Golden leading the way. The Shocker guard couldn’t keep him from driving and he usually ended up at the line. Golden scored a season-high 25 points, making 13 of 16 free throws. Jordan McRae came off the bench to score 17 points. He made all eight of his free throws. Tennessee needed that scoring with center Jarnell Stokes limited by fouls.
“We took a lot of time since the last two losses on attacking off the dribble with the jump-stop, finding guys, getting to the free throw line and making the referee make a call,” Martin said. “We need to be aggressive, get in the paint and make the referee make a call.”
A 17-point edge at the foul line gave the Volunteers a big cushion because its defense kept the Shockers under control. WSU scored two fast-break points. Other than Hall’s moves in the lane, Shockers rarely got open looks. When they did, the shots didn’t fall. Two 2-on-1 fast breaks went to waste when Orukpe and then Tekele Cotton couldn’t convert lob passes into baskets.
Most of all, Tennessee forced the Shockers to play against a set defense and gave up nothing easy.
“They limited our opportunities on offense,” Baker said. “We didn’t have much movement on offense. We run our set, and if it wasn’t there, we weren’t getting into our motion very well.”
WSU took its biggest lead of the game on a short hook by Orukpe, making it 47-42. The Shockers went on a 7-0 run, with Stokes on the bench after picking up his fourth foul, started by two free throws by Jake White with 13:09 to play. Fred VanVleet’s three pushed the lead to 45-42. They missed a chance to extend the lead when Orukpe fumbled away a lob from Williams. He redeemed himself with the hook.
The Volunteers responded with a stretch of defense to regain the lead. Down 49-44, they went on an 8-1 run. Golden’s three-point play, bailing Tennessee out of a funk against WSU’s zone, mad it 55-52. WSU’s offense continued to struggle, then its defense let down.
Malcolm Armstead and Cotton missed the connection on a lob. Baker missed a three. Tennessee pushed the ball and McRae worked open for a three and a 58-52 lead.
The Shockers survived poor shooting and foul trouble to trail 30-28 at halftime. WSU made 11 of 29 shots (37.9 percent) in the first half, although four three-pointers helped. Early, with two fouls, played eight minutes in the first half. Armstead played nine, sitting after he earned a technical foul for jawing after he made a three.