ST. LOUIS — Wichita State’s defense won the moment Illinois State’s Tyler Brown launched a guarded and long three-pointer for no reason other than frustration. The bad shot missed badly and the Shockers turned that bad decision into a beautifully executed fast break and a three-point play.
Game over. No more comebacks for the Redbirds, who couldn’t run their offense and couldn’t score for long stretches against WSU. The Shockers defended and rebounded their way to a 66-51 victory in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, landing them in the championship game against top-seeded Creighton on Sunday.
Second-seeded Wichita State (26-7) is one win away from locking up an NCAA Tournament berth. It is one win away from leaving St. Louis — after 22 years of irrelevancy, heartbreak and frustration — happy.
All because the Shockers dialed up one of their best defensive efforts of the season, one on par with a win at Virginia Commonwealth and a smothering of Iowa in Mexico. At times this season, WSU got away from that all-out effort. In this tournament, that style is back.
“You could tell from the beginning of the game our defense was going to go,” guard Demetric Williams said. “When we get out on them and guard them from the beginning, you can tell we’re ready.”
The Shockers held sixth-seeded Illinois State (18-15) to its lowest points total this season and its worst shooting percentage (29.1) this season. They out-rebounded the Redbirds 48-31.
Carl Hall led WSU with 16 points and eight rebounds. Malcolm Armstead added 15 points and three steals.
Armstead started with two steals in the first two minutes, forcing Redbirds coach Dan Muller to take out point guard Johnny Hill. Hall blocked shots and single-covered Jackie Carmichael much of the game, helping his teammates stick with shooters. Tekele Cotton wore on Brown, denying him the ball and keeping a hand in his face with a defensive masterpiece. Cleanthony Early, playing sick, blocked three shots.
Armstead’s sticky hands and WSU’s press threw off the Redbirds, who didn’t see that much pressure in the regular season. The Shockers built a 17-1 lead, forcing misses and luring the Redbirds into rushed shots.
“They came out ready to roll,” Muller said. “We turned the ball over. They jumped on us.”
The Redbirds didn’t score a field goal until Brown’s layup, after a steal, with 7:25 remaining in the first half, cutting WSU’s lead to 22-8. They didn’t score against WSU’s half-court defense until Jon Ekey’s three with 5:13 remaining. The Redbirds, helped by a switch to a zone defense, rallied and took the lead before trailing 26-24 at halftime. In the second half, WSU figured out the zone by getting the ball inside and passing more crisply. Their defense continued to frustrate the Redbirds.
The Shockers shut down one of the Valley’s top scoring teams. Carmichael, an All-MVC pick, scored 22 points, but missed six free throws and fouled out late in the game. Brown, after scoring 28 points in Friday’s quarterfinal, scored nine and went 3 for 12 from three-point range.
“Cotton did a great job,” Muller said. “Tyler’s been face-guarded for the last four or five games and we found a way to get him the ball. We were having a hard time getting him the ball on plays we usually run for him.”
Cotton, a sophomore guard, made sure of that. He rarely helped off Brown, who averages 18.4 points, and denied him the ball all over the court.
“It was our coaching staff’s plan to X him out, so that’s what we did,” Cotton said.
With Cotton on his mind, Brown took an ill-fated shot midway through the second half with the Redbirds trailing 45-36. The Shockers rebounded and broke. Ron Baker shoveled a pass to Carl Hall, who laid the ball in over Carmichael. Referee Don Daily over-ruled a charging foul because Carmichael set up in the restricted circle under the basket. Carmichael went to the bench with his fourth foul and Hall’s free throw gave the Shockers a 48-36 lead wtih 11:25 remaining.
With the Redbirds broken, WSU extended the lead to as many as 17.
“This (Illinois State) is a prolific scoring team when they’ve got it going,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We were not only getting stops, we were so active in cleaning the glass and getting in transition. This was a defensive effort that can get you to a championship game and, hopefully, help you win it.”