CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet prefers to win by a bunch of points and it usually works out. But since things aren’t always going to go that way, he saw the benefit in Wednesday’s seven-point win at Indiana State.
The Shockers needed to make plays in pressure situations for the first time since an overtime win at Missouri State on Jan. 11. Indiana State never trailed by more than seven points in the final 10 minutes and got within two in the final two minutes. Dealing with that scenario is rare for WSU in Missouri Valley Conference play.
“If you go a long while without being in those situations, you might get rusty,” VanVleet said. “I don’t feel like that was a problem. I feel like we’re well-trained. When you’re trying to play for championships … you’re going to have to know how to play in those situations.”
No. 4 WSU (24-0, 11-0) plays at Northern Iowa (11-12, 5-6) on Saturday attempting to finish off its toughest conference road swing. The Shockers built a three-game lead in the MVC and increased their odds of going unbeaten with the 65-58 win at second-place Indiana State.
The Shockers will be the highest-ranked team to play in Cedar Falls, and the 6,650-seat McLeod Center is sold out. By now, the reception awaiting them is expected and welcomed.
“They don’t boo anybody that’s not any good,” VanVleet said after playing in front of Indiana State’s largest crowd since 2005, a gathering of 9,245 at the 10,200-seat Hulman Center.
Unlike most MVC games, it played out with considerable tension. In WSU’s 10 previous conference games, it trailed in the final five minutes once — at Missouri State by seven points. It allowed leads to dip into single digits one time, when it led Illinois State by nine points with 3:38 to play at Redbird Arena. On WSU’s next possession, a three-pointer by Cleanthony Early restored a 12-point lead and the Shockers won 70-55.
Indiana State made it tough with an inspired stretch of defense that held WSU scoreless for almost four minutes. Yet WSU didn’t give up the lead because it held Indiana State to five points, on 0-for-7 shooting, in the final five minutes. The Shockers refused to let their offensive struggles weaken their defense.
“Coach (Gregg Marshall) said that if they don’t score, with what we’ve got on the scoreboard, they can’t win,” WSU guard Ron Baker said. “At that moment, we’re focusing on defense and getting the rebound. We’ve got players who can make plays on offense.”
Early was that player at Indiana State. He drove to the basket for a three-point play with 1:03 remaining to give WSU a 61-56 lead. While tested rarely in recent weeks, the Shockers showed they are indeed trained properly in how to close out a game.
Defense and rebounding, every coach maintains, are the parts of the game controlled by effort and desire. A team, Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said, can’t think about beating the Shockers until it is ready to win, or at least equal, those areas. He might like to order up a game much like last season in the McLeod Center, when the Panthers defeated No. 15 WSU 57-52. They held WSU to 40-percent shooting, forced four more turnovers and kept the rebounding deficit to one. UNI did all that while committing 12 fouls and WSU scored a mere five points (on five attempts) at the line.
“There isn’t anybody in the country that defends and rebounds, every single possession, better than Wichita State does,” he said. “… Possession by possession, can we match that effort? We better find a way to match them from an effort standpoint.”
The Panthers lost four of their past five games and they can blame defense in most cases. Loyola made 55.8 percent of its shots in a 93-87 overtime win. The Panthers defeated Evansville 95-81 despite allowing the Aces to shoot 52 percent. Indiana State made 12 of 22 shots and 6 of 10 three-pointers in the second half of a 87-81 win.
UNI’s shooters can make Saturday’s game interesting if the Shockers allow them open shots. The Panthers are averaging 76.5 points in 11 MVC games and make a conference-best 40.8 percent from three-point range. Their 10.1 threes made a game also leads the MVC in conference play. Guard Matt Bohannon is 39 of 80 from behind the arc in MVC play to emerge from a slump in November and December. UNI’s offense is also helped by more experience for newcomers such as sophomore Wes Washpun and freshman Jeremy Morgan.
“In non-conference, Bohannon and (Chip) Rank could not get into a rhythm,” Jacobson said. “They were missing H.O.R.S.E. shots. That’s changed.”
Washpun, a transfer guard from Tennessee, is shooting 57.6 percent from the field and 69.2 percent (9 of 13) from three-point range in conference games. He missed 11 of 12 threes in non-conference games.
“He’s very selective,” Jacobson said. “He works really hard to play good team offense. If he’s got space, he’s proven in Valley play he’s capable of making three-point shots.”