On a night when Cleanthony Early brought back memories of the X-Man and Ehimen Orukpe did his best impression of former shot-blocker deluxe Gene Wiley, Wichita State had to go to the wire Wednesday night to beat a Southern Illinois team that still hasn’t won a Missouri Valley Conference game.
It was that kind of crazy night at Koch Arena, where dogs and monkeys were the halftime show, Kirstie Alley wore black and yellow and the 23rd-ranked Shockers beat SIU 82-76 to improve to 15-1.
It was much harder than anyone expected.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall spent most of the first half staring holes through his players as the Shockers struggled to contain an SIU team that had lost four straight. But the Salukis had one of those nights that not even they can probably explain.
As one difficult shot after another fell in the first half, SIU stormed back from an early 7-0 deficit to take a 43-34 halftime lead.
“I thought they played tremendous basketball,” Marshall said of the Salukis. “They made great shots, they executed well and they seemed to have us out of our rhythm with their defense.”
In the next breath, though, Marshall indicted the Shockers’ first-half defense.
“People give us credit when our defense is really good and shooting percentages are low,” he said. “So when they’re high against us, we’ve got to take some of that blame. Southern Illinois shot 53 percent and made 17 field goals against us in the first half.”
Predictably, the Shockers turned up the defensive pressure to start the second half and scored eight quick points. But SIU, where Barry Hinson inherited a soap opera to go with his basketball team, kept fighting.
Desmar Jackson, a transfer from Wyoming who has clashed with Hinson the way green clashes with orange, ignited for 28 points on 10-of-19 shooting.
Jackson, Hinson said, could still get a bus ticket home if he doesn’t continue to toe the line. But for one night, at least, the coach and the team’s best player were in perfect harmony.
The same was true for the Shockers, who really haven’t had a best player that often during Marshall’s six seasons. He builds his team around depth and balance, but Early tipped the scales with 39 points, the most since Xavier McDaniel scored 44 in 1985.
The 6-foot-8 Early, a junior, scored in every imaginable way and made five of nine three-point attempts. It looks strange to see a Shocker box score in which a player takes 19 shots and nobody else more than seven. But on this night Early was right on time.
He’s the best offensive player to wear a Shocker uniform since Jason Perez and Maurice Evans in the late-1990s and he’s just finding his groove.
Following up a 24-point game at Bradley on Sunday, Early’s scoring average has risen to 15.4 points per game. Remember, foul trouble has plagued him at times, limiting him to 24.5 points per game. Think what he’ll do if he can find a way to be on the floor for 30 or more minutes.
Early played 36 minutes against the Salukis, who never found an effective way to guard him.
Hinson said he couldn’t think of any player Early reminded him of, and that’s a compliment.
“He’s 6-8, he can go inside, he’s lanky, he likes to shoot threes and he’s pretty good at it,” the SIU coach said. “I think he reminds me of a heck of a good player. I think he’s going to be an NBA draft choice this year. I’m really sad that we’re going to be losing two really good players from the Valley this year, Doug McDermott and Cleanthony Early.’’
That’s wishful thinking on Hinson’s part, but the more I see of Anthony the more he looks like a pro prospect.
Scoring comes easily for him and as the Shockers evolve, he’s going to be asked to do more and more.
While Early was clearly the offensive star, the 7-foot Orukpe had seven blocks, the most for a Shocker since Antoine Carr had nine in a game in 1981.
It’s great to see Orukpe, a senior, finally find himself as a basketball player. In the past three games, the Nigerian has 24 points, 24 rebounds and 14 blocks.
The way he’s stepped up in the absence of senior center Carl Hall has been impressive. Without him, the Shockers would not be 6-0 since Hall went to the sideline with a hand injury.
The Shockers haven’t always been conventional since Hall, Ron Baker and Evan Wessel were sidelined. And they were their most unconventional Wednesday night, depending on one player for nearly half of their points.
That’s not Marshall’s way, normally, but he’s given Early the green light. He hasn’t coached a scorer like this at WSU and all systems are “go.”