The 18-game Missouri Valley Conference schedule can be cruel, laughing at teams that think they are on a roll and tricking players into believing issues are fixed.
For Wichita State, the recurring issue is offense and it threatens to cost the Shockers a championship. They blew a chance to clinch a share of the Valley title at Koch Arena, losing 59-56 to Evansville on Wednesday in the final home game for four seniors.
The Aces held WSU to its lowest score in a home game this season by keeping the game scoreless for the final 3 minutes, 28 seconds. WSU (24-6, 12-5 MVC) must win at Creighton on Saturday to win the title. The schools are tied atop the standings with one game remaining.
“Disappointing is an understatement,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We’ve got to make some shots.”
WSU went through a shooting slump earlier this season and then corrected with a strong emphasis on moving the ball and running the offense. The Shockers looked sharp on offense — or sharp enough — to win their past five games and scored a season-high 94 in Saturday’s win over Detroit. Evansville (17-13, 9-8) provided a strong contrast with its grinding man-to-man defense. It disrupted WSU’s timing and kept the ball away from forward Carl Hall, limiting him to nine points on five shots. WSU missed 15 of 19 three-pointers and shot 38.2 percent from the field.
“They were just playing physical,” WSU forward Cleanthony Early said. “They were going to hold, they were going to push us around. We just had to respond better. We didn’t.”
One scorer looked comfortable — Evansville’s Colt Ryan. He scored 29 points and doomed the Shockers with a three-point play with 4:03 remaining. His layup and free throw provided the game’s final points.
“We just didn’t shoot the ball well,” Marshall said. “They get a lot of credit for that.”
Most of WSU’s highlights came in a 10-minute stretch in the second half in which it went from trailing 42-31 to leading 53-49. Evansville, playing without senior guard Ned Cox, surrendered turnovers and the Shockers turned them into spectacular dunks and the crowd stood and roared.
WSU cut the lead to 42-38, closest since early in the first half, on Demetric Williams’ three from the wing. With the fans and pep band blasting his ears, Aces coach Marty Simmons called timeout to deal with a 7-0 run with 16:16 remaining. The run continued when Williams and Malcolm Armstead trapped freshman D.J. Balentine, who lost the ball to Armstead. Armstead made a back-handed flip to Williams, who threw down a one-handed dunk to cut the lead to 42-40.
Fred VanVleet tied the game 42-all with a 15-foot jumper. The Shockers took the lead with a stretch of ball-hawking defense. Armstead stole the ball from Ryan, feeding Hall for a dunk to cut Evansville’s lead to 49-48. VanVleet dove on the floor for a loose ball and hit Early for a ferocius dunk and WSU’s first lead, 50-49. A three by Armstead — his only one — came after another steal and put the Shockers ahead 53-49, forcing Simmons to call another timeout with 8 minutes remaining.
The Shockers made one free throw and one dunk — by Tekele Cotton — the rest of the way. They missed threes. They missed layups. They turned the ball over trying to lob it to Hall. Hall fumbled a pretty pass from Early out of bounds with a clear path to the basket. In the final 20 seconds, Armstead, well defended by Troy Taylor, airballed a three when he tried to draw a foul. When WSU got the ball back with 4.9 seconds to play, the inbound play went badly awry and Hall missed his second three-point shot of the season.
“We just couldn’t keep making the plays,” Williams said. “We were a little stagnant, wasn’t the moving the ball as good, wasn’t dominating the paint. Tough game.”
Simmons, playing three freshmen in the Valley’s toughest atmosphere, used his timeouts to calm his team. After WSU took the four-point lead, the Aces responded with a 7-0 run, capped by a jumper by sophomore Jordan Nelson.
“You’ve got to slow down and have poise,” Simmons said. “We were starting to point fingers a little bit there. Our guys bent a little bit, but they didn’t break.”
Now it is WSU’s turn to regroup again. A three-game losing streak cost them control of the MVC race in early February. The Shockers rallied with four MVC wins, two on the road, to regain first place. It is all even again, and the Shockers have only themselves to blame.