PEORIA, Ill. — Wichita State got its first taste of real Missouri Valley Conference basketball this season and passed the test. After two double-digit wins, No. 3 came hard.
The Shockers survived 39 minutes of chest-to-chest, reaching and grabbing defense with Bradley to win 69-63 at Carver Arena on Sunday.
The Braves, in many ways, are built in the image of WSU. They play an aggressive defense that attacks ball-handlers and fuels a big-play offense. Bradley did it well. WSU did it a little better.
“We didn’t play as well as we could play, but we played better than good,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “That’s what I told them it was going to take — better than good. There won’t be a whole lot of Valley teams that win at Bradley this year.”
WSU (14-1, 3-0) won its fifth straight game, all without three injured starters, and its sixth straight over Bradley (10-5, 2-1), its longest streak in the 128-game series. It won the previous five by an average margin of 25.2 points. WSU didn’t lead by more than five Sunday until the final seconds.
“We had them right on the ropes,” Bradley coach Geno Ford said. “We couldn’t deliver a knockout punch.”
WSU’s Cleanthony Earl made sure of that with eight of his 24 points in the final five minutes. His three with 4:45 to play put WSU up 59-58. His three with 3:23 to play — thanks to a one-handed save of a rebound by Tekele Cotton — provided a 62-61 lead. After a Bradley miss, he dunked for a 64-61 lead.
“He made a couple big-time shots that broke our back,” Ford said.
Bradley’s Walt Lemon Jr. matched Early’s heroics by beating the shot clock, over two defenders, to cut the lead to 64-63. The teams exchanged misses, leaving WSU with the ball near half court with 23 seconds to play after an Early rebound.
After a timeout, WSU guard Demetric Williams got open on an inbounds play. Cotton passed to him near the lane and Williams drove to the basket for two and drew a foul. His three-point play gave WSU a 67-63 lead with 21.6 seconds to play.
“They were switching and, I think, they didn’t communicate real good and left me wide open,” Williams said. “I saw it was an easy lane to the basket. Coach wanted us to run (time off the block), but I saw I had an easy lane to the basket.”
Cotton searched for at least two options, while timing the play in his head, before finding Williams freelancing into an open spot.
“I was about to call timeout and then I saw him,” Cotton said. “I tried to zip it there as fast as I could.”
Cotton dunked after a Braves miss for the final basket, setting off a celebration on the WSU bench. The Shockers knew they won a big game against a team that won’t lose often at home.
Bradley forced 14 turnovers, scoring 15 points off them, and shot 46.3 percent, second-best by a Shocker opponent.
Doric’s Simms-Edwards and Lemon both scored 15 points for Bradley, which went 7-25 last season.
“In my six years (at WSU) no one’s improved more than Geno Ford from one year to the next,” Marshall said. “They’ve really done a great job, with some of the same pieces, of implementing his style and system.”