NORMAL, Ill. — Teams working to win a conference title often need at least one miracle finish to come out on top.
If so, Wichita State’s improbable ending arrived in its favor on Sunday with a 68-67 win over Illinois State at Redbird Arena. Cleanthony Early’s three-pointer with 5.2 seconds to play provided the winning basket, capping an 8-0 run that started with Early’s free throws after a flagrant foul.
The Shockers trailed by seven points with 40 seconds remaining, enough time for them to make every play, rip out the hearts from the home team and celebrate madly on the court.
“We had hope the whole time,” WSU guard Malcolm Armstead said. “We never felt down. If we felt that way, we wouldn’t have come out with this win.”
WSU (22-5, 11-4 Missouri Valley Conference) retains a one-game lead in the MVC over Creighton with three to play. The Shockers are that close to winning back-to-back Valley titles for the first time since 1964 and 1965.
Illinois State (16-11, 8-7) controlled the first half with its defense and scored with ease for much of the second half. Throughout, the Redbirds set up shop at the foul line and outscored WSU by 20 points on free throws. However, they failed to deliver a knockout blow.
The Redbirds appeared as if they would survive WSU’s final rally when center Jackie Carmichael rebounded to protect a 65-60 lead with 51 seconds to play. Carmichael, a Manhattan native, got the ball to Johnny Hill, who drew a foul.
Instead, that play started the unraveling.
Fans started to celebrate what looked like the clincher. Then they noticed the referees huddling at the scorer’s table and looking at TV monitor. Carmichael kicked WSU’s Tekele Cotton when he grabbed the rebound and, after a video review, received a flagrant foul. Hill made two free throws with 40 seconds to play. Early made two free throws and WSU got the ball, down 67-62 with 40 seconds remaining.
At first, referees didn’t call a foul. Then WSU coach Gregg Marshall asked referee Paul Janssen to look at the play. After a review, they hit Carmichael with the foul.
“I didn’t know, really, what it was, but I knew there was a kick,” Marshall said. “He’s coming out of the air, and Cotton’s there, and the foot goes to the face area. I’m glad they made the call.”
Illinois State coach Dan Muller searched his memory for a precedent and came up empty.
“Never in my entire life,” he said. “And I’d be surprised if I see another one. They said he intentionally kicked him above the neck. How Jackie was getting a rebound and intentionally kicking a moving target, I’m not sure.”
WSU’s Demetric Williams made a three-pointer from the corner to cut the lead to 67-65 with 28 seconds to play. The Shockers pressed and Hill, trying to escape a trap in the corner by dribbling around Carl Hall, fumbled the ball out of bounds with 24 seconds to play.
WSU worked for a shot for nine seconds, leading Marshall to call timeout. Early got free for a three-pointer over Bryant Allen, after the Redbirds switched on defense, to grab the 68-67 lead with 5.2 seconds remaining.
“Just a screen and roll,” Early said. “I thought I had the opportunity and I was open for a second.”
Armstead, who led WSU with 18 points, found Early with an eight-inch height advantage over Allen.
“I made the read and Cleanthony made the shot,” he said. “They switched it and I saw a smaller guy was on Cleanthony.”
The Redbirds got the ball to Carmichael near half court. He dribbled past Ehimen Orukpe and got into the lane to shoot a runner that bounced away.
“It’s nice to get out of here with a win,” Marshall said. “What I commended the guys for was how they executed down the stretch. They didn’t force anything. They got each other looks, which they hadn’t been doing for the first 35 minutes. In the end, when it mattered most, they executed brilliantly.”
Tyler Brown led the Redbirds with 17 points on 4-of-13 shooting. Hill added 14.
WSU trailed 27-20 at halftime and considered itself fortunate. Illinois State’s defense dominate the first 15 minutes of the game, rarely giving the Shockers an open shot or a clear lane to pass. WSU trailed 17-5 after missing 14 of 16 shots and all seven of its three-pointers, mixing in eight turnovers to add to the pain.