ST. LOUIS — Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said it once, then, about a minute later, said it again. For emphasis.
"Wichita State handled us," Lusk said. "At their place, they could’ve just named the score."
Lusk and his Bears survived an Missouri Valley Conference Tournament quarterfinal game against Illinois State 53-48 on Friday, earning another shot at No. 2 WSU (32-0) in Saturday’s semifinals.
So much for the thrill of victory.
“They’ve had a perfect season ... 32 times the opponent has tried to beat them, and they’ve been very unsuccessful,” Lusk said. “So we’ll see what we can do tomorrow.”
It will be the third matchup between the teams this season, following the Shockers’ epic, 19-point, second-half comeback in a 72-69 win at Missouri State on Jan. 11 and a 68-45 WSU win last Saturday on senior day at Koch Arena. The 45 points tied WSU’s season low for points allowed.
“We played (WSU) at home and competed really hard but didn’t get the job done,” MSU guard Austin Ruder said. “And then we went to their place and just kind of crumbled.”
And while the Bears won’t be dealing with the whirlwind of emotions they did at Koch Arena one week ago as the Shockers closed out the regular season, the stakes remain high.
Missouri State improved to 20-11 with the win over Illinois State after going 11-22 last season, and its only hope of making the NCAA Tournament rests with pulling off the upset of the year on Saturday.
“Any time you can play a team of this caliber, ranked second in the country, you have to be excited,” MSU forward Keith Pickens said. “We didn’t execute last time we played them.”
Without Ruder on Friday, MSU could very well be home. The freshman hit 6 of 12 three-pointers, the seventh time he’s hit at least four in a game, and now has 71 on the season, setting the Bears’ single-season record for a freshman.
No other Missouri State player was in double figures, neither team shot above 35 percent and they combined to hit 19 of 36 free throws and 14 of 46 three-pointers.
“He’s not afraid of the moment,” Lusk said. “He’s never been afraid of the big stage. Really an unbelievable effort for a freshman.”
The Bears will need a team effort to stay with WSU, something they know.
“Just play Missouri State basketball, just play our hardest and leave everything out there,” said MSU senior guard Jarmar Gulley, a second-team All-MVC selection. “Do that, and things will be great for us.”