In a Missouri Valley Conference season that gets wackier each night, Wichita State can count on handling Drake at Koch Arena.
The Shockers defeated Drake 71-56 on Wednesday at Koch Arena and took over sole possession of first place, thanks to Creighton’s 61-54 loss at Northern Iowa. WSU owns a one-game lead with four to play, which may mean nothing or everything in this parity-filled MVC race.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall knows how hard it is to navigate the Valley’s 18-game schedule, which is why he told his team before the game he expected to own first place in about two hours. Creighton had to play at Northern Iowa, and road wins are rare this season.
“I was just guessing that Northern Iowa was going to win, but I know how good they are at home,” he said. “Maybe the players will listen to me a little better, because they think I’m smart.”
They are listening. The Shockers emerged from the locker room talking about taking the rest of the season one game at a time. Players who survived a three-game losing streak and earn their way back to the top are probably serious about that cliche.
“Everybody’s just got to do what they do and do it well,” WSU senior Carl Hall said. “We’ve got a tough schedule ahead of us, so we’ve just got to focus on each game.”
If focusing means overwhelming teams on the backboards, defense and making almost 40 percent from three-point range, the Shockers are in good shape. WSU (21-5, 10-4 MVC) powered over and through Drake (11-14, 5-9) with its rebounding and depth. Freshman Fred VanVleet came off the bench to score a career-high 17 points and hand out a career-high nine assists. Hall added 14 points and 10 rebounds. WSU made 9 of 23 three-pointers and outrebounded Drake 45-29. It scored 22 points off 18 offensive rebounds.
The Shockers beat Drake for the fifth consecutive time at Koch Arena, all by 15 or more points.
“It’s really tough to prepare for the size and athleticism coming and attacking the offensive glass,” Drake coach Mark Phelps said. “You don’t have a scout team that can simulate that. And when they do get going like that, they’re tough to deal with.”
WSU led 30-16 at halftime and Drake didn’t get closer than eight points in the second half. Drake’s starters combined to score seven points in the first half, making two field goals. The Bulldogs must make three-pointers to survive and the Shockers took that away in the first half.
“We won the game in the first half,” Marshall said. “When you hold this team to 21 percent (shooting) and nine percent (three-pointers) … and you’re up 14, that’s big.”
Led by VanVleet, WSU’s bench grabbed the starring role in the first half. Reserves scored 16 of WSU’s first-half points with VanVleet handing out five of his assists.
“The bench came in and changed the whole tempo,” guard Malcolm Armstead said. “The whole night, (Fred) really carried us. Offensively, he had us rolling. On defense, he had us all in tune and locked in.”
WSU struggled through the early minutes of the first half. Cotton’s three-pointer got the Shockers rolling. The basket started a 13-0 run that gave WSU a 25-14 lead. Offensive rebounding provided much of the power during that run. Cleanthony Early tipped out a missed foul shot, leading to a three by Armstead. Hall’s rebounded a miss by VanVleet and found VanVleet open for a layup. A Drake turnover led to a layup by Early.
Drake’s zone slowed WSU momentarily, but not for long. Hall’s follow shot put WSU up 27-14. Early’s three, on an assist by VanVleet, gave the Shockers a 30-16 halftime lead.
WSU built a 54-33 lead in the second half, then let the Bulldogs rally with a 15-1 run. Armstead’s corner three regained the momentum for the Shockers. Tekele Cotton made a short jumper for a 60-47 lead and VanVleet’s three-point play made it 63-47 with 3:27 to play.
Ben Simons led Drake with 15 points, all in the second half.