NEW YORK — It is a familiar routine these past two weeks. No matter the city or opponent, Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall comes to the interview room, takes a drink, and tells the audience this is the best his team played in a long time.
He needs a new line. The Shockers are playing this well every game. Wichita State embarrassed Washington State 75-44 on Tuesday night in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“They seem to be getting better, which is what you want your teams to do,” Marshall said. “You bloom where you’re planted, and we are planted in this tournament. It’s a great tournament, and here we are in New York with a chance to play for a championship.”
Wichita State (28-8) plays Alabama (25-11) in Thursday’s 6 p.m. championship game. It is the first title game in a national tournament for the Shockers, who lost in the semifinals of the 1965 NCAA Final Four.
“We’ve got one more, and we’ve got to get ready for that one,” Wichita State guard Joe Ragland said. “One more would be even better.”
The Shockers set a school record for wins in a season in a surprisingly easy fashion. Washington State (22-13) finished 9-9 in the Pacific-10 Conference and beat NCAA Tournament teams Washington (twice) and Southern Cal. The Cougars showed none of that stuff against the Shockers. Washington State shot 29.4 percent and missed all 10 of its three-pointers. It showed no interest in banging with the Shockers in the lane. Wichita State out-rebounded Washington State 52-25 and outscored it 48-18 in the lane.
“That didn’t feel too good,” Cougars coach Ken Bone said. “They are just bigger and stronger.”
Wichita State never trailed, never struggled and never eased up. It led 7-0 after the Cougars missed their first six shots.
The Shockers then turned the rest of the first half over to junior center Garrett Stutz. He scored 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting in 13 minutes. He finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
“He was just a beast tonight,” Marshall said.
Stutz scored his first points with a three-pointer, giving Wichita State a 10-2 lead. After that, he made the lane his home. His layup made it 12-4. He tipped in a miss by Ben Smith for a 14-4 lead. He tipped in another miss to make it 20-8. His dunk made it 29-16. When the Cougars defended him, he passed to Graham Hatch for an open three-pointer and a 34-19 lead.
“As a team, we were flowing together,” Stutz said. “Really good ball movement — our guards were moving it really well.”
Washington State failed to recover. Foul trouble limited leading scorer Klay Thompson to eight minutes in the first half. He finished with six points on 1-of-10 shooting, 16 below his conference-leading average.
“It was terrible, picking up three fouls in the first half,” Thompson said. “That’s really stupid play on my part, and it’s tough ending the season that way.”
With Thompson limited by fouls and Toure Murry’s defense, the Cougars collapsed.
“We just depend on him probably too much because he’s such a great player,” Bone said. “He got his third (foul), actually, on a charge in the first half when he was trying to be aggressive. And I just think it took a lot out of him, and when it takes a lot out of him, it takes a lot out of us.”
Wichita State took its 17-point halftime lead and dominated the first 10 minutes of the second half to turn the game into a laugher. The Shockers ran and dunked. They made threes. They led by as many as 35 in the second half and got the game to their walk-ons with three minutes remaining.
“We just played with a lot of intensity defensively,” Ragland said. “After awhile it seemed like we were out there getting the players that really don’t play a lot to score.”