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Baker’s career night propels Shockers to 27-0

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, at 6:12 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 20, 2014, at 6:22 p.m.

— No. 4 Wichita State learned from its first meeting with Evansville. Playing off the Aces guards, even the ones who don’t shoot, doesn’t work.

The Shockers went full-court press in the half-court on Sunday against Evansville and disrupted its motion offense with a risk-and-reward approach. WSU forced 18 turnovers and scored 23 points off those turnovers to handle the Aces 84-68 at the Ford Center on Sunday afternoon.

On the 2013-14 Shocker scale, the history-making impact of the game was minimal. WSU (27-0, 14-0 Missouri Valley Conference) is the first team to go 27-0 since Illinois in 2004-05. It built a three-game lead in the MVC with four to play and avoided disaster against a school that sunk Shocker hopes as recently as last season when it swept the series.

WSU guard Ron Baker, looking extra-bouncy after four days of rest, scored a career-high 26 points. Fred VanVleet added 18 and both of them lived in the passing lanes, hunting lazy tosses, ripping the ball away from careless opponents and turning those mistakes into baskets. They both grabbed five steals, both career highs, and the Shockers totaled a season-high 14 steals.

Evansville (11-16, 4-10) lost for the fifth time in six games.

“The glaring stat is our turnovers,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “They’re just A to B passes. If you don’t screen these guys, they do a great job of getting out in the passing lanes. You’ve got to use ball fakes. They’re very, very aggressive. They’re very active.”

The Shockers, ranked No. 2 in the coaches poll, played a softer version of their defense early in the Feb. 1 game at Koch Arena, content to let non-shooters Duane Gibson and Jaylon Brown handle the ball in order to help on scorers. The Aces made their first eight shots and led 17-9, prompting a change.

On Sunday, the Shockers played it all-out from the start.

“Our guys were just a half-step quicker than they were at Wichita State,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “They were beating them to the spot many times, were able to get some steals and some run-outs.”

Indeed, the Shockers seemed to be waiting for some of the passes. The Aces helped with average-speed cuts, not decisive enough to shake the Shockers, and a refusal to cut back door (perhaps because of the waiting shot-blockers). WSU went to school on Evansville’s motion offense and the scouting report prepared by associate head coach Chris Jans played out like a dream.

“If you fall back and let them pass where they want to, they’ll pick you apart,” VanVleet said. “I don’t think we anticipated getting so many steals like that, but it definitely helped and gave us a little bit of confidence guarding them.”

Winning the turnover battle so decisively made Marshall feel better about allowing the Aces to shoot 51.1 percent from the field and make 5 of 11 three-pointers. Evansville guard D.J. Balentine scored 19 points on 5-of-17 shooting. Center Egidijus Mockevicius also scored 19, tying his career high, to go with 10 rebounds.

“Our turnovers tonight led to run-outs and easy baskets,” Marshall said. “And that’s what you have to have against these guys.”

WSU led for the game’s final 29 minutes. The Aces, fueled by a season-high crowd of 8,802, refused to fade. They cut the lead to 65-60 and had the ball twice. They came up empty both times and watched their best chance disappear. WSU upped the pressure on an in-bound play to force a turnover and, after a Shocker turnover, Balentine missed a guarded shot.

“We were within striking distance,” Simmons said. “If you want to beat teams like Wichita State, you can’t make mistakes.”

The Shockers led 71-64 when a 7-0 run, all by Baker, ended any doubt. He made two free throws with 2:54 to play for a 73-64 lead. His three and a one-handed dunk after a steal put WSU up 78-64 and sent many of the fans home.

“A lot of times, our offense hurt our defense,” Evansville freshman Blake Simmons, son of the coach, said. “We gave them those easy transition layups.”

WSU took a 55-41 lead on Cleanthony Early’s three-point play and appeared on the verge of taking firm control. The Aces went to a zone defense that slowed the Shockers and center Mockevicius scored six points during an 8-2 run that pulled Evansville within 57-51.

That got the crowd of 8,802 roaring. Early responded with a long three and a dunk off a lob to give WSU a 62-51 lead.

The Shockers disrupted Evansville’s motion offense by jumping in the passing lanes to create turnovers. They scored 15 first-half points off nine Aces turnovers.

Wichita State kept Balentine out of the picture for much of the first half and built a 34-25 lead before he got rolling. The Aces ran him off a double-screen to free him from Tekele Cotton’s defense and he made a three-pointer. He made two free throws with 2:46 to play in the half to cut WSU’s lead to 34-30.

After a basket by Baker, Balentine made two more free throws to make it 36-32. WSU’s Kadeem Coleby made two free throws for a 38-32 lead that stood at halftime.

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.

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