LOS ANGELES — Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early explained a multi-step process that led to the Shockers confusing La Salle’s defense in the first four-plus minutes on Saturday night.
Shockers coach Gregg Marshall thought that maybe La Salle’s hectic travel schedule had something to do with the Explorers’ poor start and WSU’s incredible one.
It probably wasn’t as complicated as Early made it sound and not as simple as Marshall described, either.
However it occurred and for whatever reason, the Shockers were supremely inspired in the first four-plus minutes and used that early run to take a 14-point lead and glide to a 72-58 win in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament at Staples Center.
"That was the game plan early on," WSU senior guard Malcolm Armstead said. "Try to wear them down, pound it inside and get inside-out shots, and that’s what we came up with. That’s what happened."
A simple strategy led to WSU’s scintillating start. The Shockers were taller than La Salle at nearly every position, and that paid dividends in their efforts to establish big man Carl Hall.
WSU’s guards used their height advantage to pass over defenders to Hall in the paint. Hall used his to shoot over La Salle’s big men, or he took advantage of their overplaying entry passes to find himself with easy layups.
When Hall scored a basket to get to 12 points, La Salle had 11. The Explorers didn’t catch up with Hall until nearly 13 minutes had passed. Hall had 10 points for the Shockers before the initial media timeout, when WSU led 14-2. He finished with 18 points and eight rebounds.
"I think we were a little fresher and I think we were beating them down the floor early," Marshall said. "Carl Hall set the tone with just outrunning their bigs, and then we got some good stops."
Though Hall was the catalyst in those WSU’s 47-29 rebounding edge, he wasn’t the only one. Six Shockers had at least four rebounds and Ehimen Orukpe came off the bench for WSU to lead all players with nine.
Orukpe’s contributions were somewhat of an outlier, because the Shockers didn’t rely on their substitutes nearly as much as they did in their third-round upset win over Gonzaga last weekend.
Reserve guards Fred VanVleet and Demetric Williams each played at least 15 minutes, but the Shockers found early that their starting five was the perfect lineup to attack the undersized Explorers.
Besides Hall’s early assertion, the Shockers gave La Salle fits at nearly every position. Guard Ron Baker occasionally posted up the Explorers’ smaller guards, and keeping him near the paint allowed him to contribute to WSU’s rebounding efforts.
Early, a hassle for most opposing teams due to his 6-foot-8 size and his ability to shoot from the perimeter or drive to the basket, scored eight points and had seven rebounds in his first start of the tournament. La Salle made one of its first eight shots as WSU presented matchup problems for the Explorers defensively, too.
"It was a good game plan and our guys executed it very well," Marshall said.
Tekele Cotton was a lockdown defender and Armstead a leader as always — the Shockers’ emotional leader and Saturday’s leading scorer with 18 points.
"When that ball is tipped, everything else doesn’t matter," Early said. "Everything everybody said that they thought we were going to lose or that we were going to win, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to seize the moment."