It took a very un-Gregg Marshall like performance for No. 23 Wichita State to survive on Wednesday night. Marshall didn’t mind at all after watching forward Cleanthony Early score 39 points in an 82-76 win over Southern Illinois at Koch Arena.
“That’s a big-time number,” Marshall, WSU’s coach, said. “He makes it look easy.”
Nothing about WSU’s win came easy, regardless of how effortless it appeared Early poured in his season high. He made 13 of 19 shots, 5 of 9 three-pointers, and finished with the most points by a Shocker since Xavier McDaniel scored 44 against West Texas State in 1985. It is the highest total by a Missouri Valley Conference player this season and tied for fifth nationally.
SIU (7-8, 0-4 MVC) battled the Shockers (15-1, 4-0) all the way, leading 43-34 at halftime and rallying from a 10-point deficit in the second half to make it close in the final minute.With starting center Dantiel Daniels out with a sprained ankle, the Salukis often played a lineup with no player taller than 6-foot-5.
“It was definitely the height advantage and just knowing how to use your body against a smaller defender,” Early said. “They gave me a couple open perimeter shots and I just found a way to get it going.”
Marshall’s teams are defined by balanced scoring, balanced minutes and superb defense. Not Wednesday. SIU’s changing defenses took the Shockers out of their comfort zone and they didn’t play with their customary energy on defense in the first half.
Early is talented enough to cover up a lot of issues. He out-dueled SIU’s Desmar Jackson, who scored 28 points.
Early, a 6-foot-8 junior, played 36 minutes and was one of two Shockers to reach double figures. He scored WSU’s first seven points on his way to 16 in the first half. He scored eight of WSU’s first 13 points to start the second half, giving WSU a 44-43 lead with a three-point play. When SIU made its final push, cutting the lead to 73-69, Early made a three and a layup to give the Shockers a 78-71 advantage.
“That No. 11 is pretty good,” SIU coach Barry Hinson said. “Gosh, was he good.”
With Early waking up the memories of McDaniel and other great scorers, center Ehimen Orukpe did the same for defense. He blocked seven shots, most by a Shocker since Antoine Carr swatted seven against West Texas State in 1981.
“Coach (Marshall) calls him an eraser,” WSU guard Tekele Cotton said. “He’s there to clean it up.”
SIU’s zone defense frustrated the Shockers in the first half. They committed nine turnovers, twice throwing the ball directly to a defender, that led to 17 SIU points. SIU, meanwhile, made shots from all angles and stunned the crowd with a halftime lead.
The Shockers expected harsh words from Marshall at halftime.
“We felt it ourselves,” Early said. “We knew were playing down to our competition. We felt like we had to step it up.”
WSU, playing harder on defense, led 57-50 with 14:12 to play and 70-60 with 7:02 remaining.
It wasn’t enough to shake SIU. WSU committed two turnovers in the final minute and SIU cut the lead to 78-76. WSU’s Malcolm Armstead made two free throws and then stole the ball from SIU’s Anthony Beane. Two more free throws from Armstead with 15 seconds to play ended the drama.