North Carolina Central prepared for Wichita State using picks set by pickup trucks with yellow lines and curbs as their boundary markers. Their assistant coaches got a lesson in the importance of carry-on luggage.
No, it wasn’t the ideal way to get ready for the 11th-ranked Shockers.
North Carolina Central didn’t want use its travel issues as an excuse, and it didn’t. It took WSU until the final two minutes to get comfortable in a 77-66 victory Sunday night at Koch Arena. North Carolina Central hadn’t been comfortable since it left Durham, N.C. on Saturday, enduring a day full of flight cancellations and airports before the team broke into three groups and arrived throughout Sunday.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, but to our credit, we don’t even talk about it,” Eagles coach LeVelle Moton said. “In 10 more minutes, I may fall asleep up here.”
In its final game before Christmas break, WSU (12-0) extended its school-record unbeaten streak to start a season. The 12-game win streak is the third-longest in program history. The Shockers led by 17 in the first half, but couldn’t complete the blowout, largely because North Carolina Central’s Jeremy Ingram scored 27 of his career-high 37 points in the second half.
The Eagles (7-3) spent Saturday night at a Ramada Inn in Atlanta. To practice, they hit the parking lot. WSU prepared its road jerseys for the Eagles to wear in case their luggage went missing. Moton carried on luggage so he coached in a suit. His assistants did not and wore sweat suits.
“It was interesting,” Moton said. “We counted —they have 62 lines in the parking lot and they have a great Subway across the street. Imagine that — preparing for the No. 9 (coaches poll) in the country in the Ramada Inn parking lot without a ball.”
WSU coach Gregg Marshall worried about his team, coming off wins over Tennessee and Alabama, checking out early for the holidays. He told them to grab the energy early and take aim at 12-0. It worked. The Shockers, often slow starters, led 40-24 at halftime.
“We can’t talk about how poorly we played in the first half,” Marshall said. “We played pretty well. Then I think we relaxed a little bit.”
WSU junior center Darius Carter started his first game and scored a career-high 19 points. Cleanthony Early added 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. WSU outscored the Eagles 22-10 at the foul line and out-rebounded them 37-22 to score 17 second-chance points.
Ingram started the second half with a four-point play, fouled while shooting a three by Tekele Cotton, and the Eagles rode that momentum. When the Shockers threatened to pull away, Ingram changed the course with a deep three or by drawing fouls.
“That four-point play took a chunk out of it,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “Then they got some confidence and made some really tough and deep shots.”
The Eagles cut the lead to 70-63 with 2:19 to play. WSU’s Ron Baker ended the upset hopes with a corner three with 1:43 remaining. When Ingram lost the ball on the next possession, Baker picked it up and VanVleet found Early for a breakaway dunk and a 75-63 lead.
No more answers from the Eagles.
Carter made 6 of 9 shots and 7 of three throws and played like a man who didn’t want to give up his starting spot. He played 34 minutes, in part because senior Chadrack Lufile’s tardiness for practice and Kadeem Coleby’s toe injury. Carter continued to add offensive moves, going to his left more often, and scored in double figures for the third time in four games.
“He was a go-to guy on the block,” Marshall said. “(Chadrack) has had trouble finding the gym on time recently, so it worked out well. Darius deserved the start and (Chadrack) accomodated.”
WSU erased its previous first-half struggles with an 11-0 run highlighted by two Carter dunks. He sprinted to beat the defenders to the basket after a Baker steal and Baker found him with a lookaway pass for a dunk an a 28-19 lead. He dunked seconds later, off a bounce pass from VanVleet, for a 32-19 lead. Carter got another fast break basket to put the Shockers up 36-19.
The Eagles gave the Shockers help with turnovers on four straight possessions, followed by a badly missed shot by Jordan Parks. WSU scored six points off those turnovers. The Shockers threw a zone defense at the Eagles late in the half and it cut down on their drives.
“We looked like we had never seen a zone in our life,” Moton said. “We just stood still and allowed them to match up with us and took some bad shots.”