KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wichita State had a fight on its hands Tuesday night in the championship game of the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center. It was a bloody mess, but one the Shockers survived, 75-62.
It was much closer than that, which is why the two teams did everything but pull out swords for a duel.
It was fun to watch, even if fans did have to cover their eyes at times because of swinging elbows, floor burns and even a late ejection for BYU forward Matt Austin, who drew a Flagrant 2 foul in the final minute. Cougars coach Dave Rose also drew a technical foul late. I was glad for a minute that the two teams didn’t take this one outside.
But as Shocker fans know, when the going gets tough, Wichita State gets soft. Cotton soft.
Tekele Cotton, who could make his own Dos Equis commercial, took on the assignment of guarding BYU’s leading scorer, Tyler Haws, in Tuesday’s first half. And Haws scored only four points, all free throws.
In the second half, Cotton switched over to defend guard Matt Carlino, who lit up WSU for 18 first-half points. But Cotton sticks to players like adhesive. While Haws got it going some in the second half, Cotton shut off Carlino like he was a water spout, holding him without a field goal in the final 20 minutes.
On a night when Wichita State needed every ounce of toughness it could summon, Cotton and his teammates dug deep.
The Shockers needed a test. A coach, or teacher for that matter, can only get by so long with pop quizzes. And Emporia State, Western Kentucky, William & Mary, Tennessee State, Tulsa and DePaul were open-book.
Brigham Young consists of a bunch of big, smart and talented players who won’t be swayed from their zone defense and elaborate way of drawing fouls, often times out of thin air. Wichita State has risen to No. 12 in the rankings and it was time to find out if the Shockers were worthy.
WSU made scoring difficult for the Cougars, who came in averaging more than 90 points per game. But this one wasn’t a work of art. It was a battle between scrappy teams and tough, determined players. At one point in the second half, I counted four bodies on the floor as the two teams chased an offensive rebound.
Both coaches, BYU’s Rose and the Shockers’ Gregg Marshall, had a lot to say to the officials and the words weren’t often rated G.
It’s fitting, then, that the Cougars’ Carlino has a name straight out of a mob movie. It was that kind of night, that kind of game.
Try as they might, the Shockers were not able to shoot BYU out of its zone. Not that they didn’t try. But shots weren’t falling and Wichita State had to improvise.
Baskets were hard to come by. After a hot start from the perimeter, the Cougars cooled off. And the Shockers never got hot, so they had to implement unconventional ways to break through the BYU zone like driving to the basket.
There was heavy traffic around the rim all night. It was a battle zone in there. Players checked body parts to see if there was blood. Or if they were broken.
There was no room to breathe until WSU guard Fred VanVleet forced some late, scoring eight points in a span of 2:01. He made two three-pointers, only the fifth and sixth the Shockers had made all night in close to 30 attempts, and also made a runner in the lane. Those points helped Wichita State take a 62-57 lead with 3:35 to play.
But it wasn’t over. I’m not sure why I had the notion that BYU would be a “soft” team. The Cougars aren’t. Maybe I got hung up on their high-scoring games.
BYU’s helter-skelter offensive style isn’t soft. It’s maddening and difficult to defend and gives the Shockers a lot of credit for holding the Cougars to 62 points, more than 30 below their average. Not many teams are going to do keep clamps on BYU this season.
It was the kind of game that tests the mettle team and win or lose, the Shockers could have come out of this one in good shape. Of course, winning is the best kind of shape. And WSU is 7-0 with the kind of win now on its resume that impresses. The Shockers have the bumps and bruises to show for this one. But also the satisfaction that comes with winning a game like this one.