Wichita State is 10-0 for the first time. That’s 10 wins the hard way, which is the only way the Shockers would want things. They won on the road. They won on neutral courts and Saturday they bullied a bunch of SEC bruisers.
With junior Tekele Cotton turning in a game-changing defense-to-offense highlight sequence, the 12th-ranked Shockers defeated Tennessee 70-61 at Intrust Bank Arena in front of a near-sellout crowd of 14,356.
“When I got here for shootaround, they were already drinking beer,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “They were definitely ready. It’s the same energy that we’ve grown to love and appreciate from our fans.”
10-0. It is near impossible to crank up the excitement level after a Final Four season, but the Shockers are giving it a great run. Beating the Volunteers (6-3) might sneak the Shockers into the Associated Press top 10 (they are No. 8 in the coaches poll) and convince any remaining skeptics who wanted to see them beat another name-brand opponent.
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“They’re used to winning now,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “You‘ve just got to point them in the right direction and not give them to confuse them and they’re pretty doggone good.”
Cotton led WSU with a career-high 19 points, all in the second half. Darius Carter came off the bench to score 11 points and grab a season-high 14 rebounds and block two shots. Cleanthony Early added 13 points, again making a crucial three-pointer late in the game. Tennessee guard Jordan McRae scored 26 points.
While significant, this is a team that got used to big wins and regrouping a long time ago.
“It feels good, but we’ve got another game Tuesday (Alabama), an even bigger game on the road,” VanVleet said. “It feels good, but we’ve got a lot more to do.”
On Saturday, they faced down an experienced team with high expectations desperate for a quality win. They out-rebounded one of the nation’s best rebounding teams. They didn’t need a big game from leading scorer Ron Baker, who gutted out 32 minutes with a badly sprained left ankle. VanVleet scored eight points in the first five minutes and didn’t score again.
“Key plays, key blocks, key baskets,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “They made their free throws.”
Cotton, all agreed, grabbed control of the game late in the second half with an 11-second sequence that summed up WSU’s effort.
Tennessee broke WSU’s pressure and 6-foot-8 Jeronne Maymon got the ball alone — it appeared — and about to build on a 44-43 lead. Instead of dunking, Maymon tried to bank the ball off the backboard and Cotton jumped from the middle of the lane to block the shot. He altered Robert Hubbs’ follow shot and took an outlet pass from Carter. Cotton beat every defender, save one, to the other end of the court and Euro-stepped his way to a basket and a foul shot.
“I just saw him open and did everything I could to stop him from making a basket,” Cotton said. “I felt the momentum. There was still a lot on the clock, so we had to keep pushing.”
With 9:04 remaining, WSU led 46-44 and never trailed again.
“A big-time block,” Martin said. “The game started to turn from there.”
After a Tennessee miss, Cotton drew another foul and made a free throw. He missed the second and Carter swooped in for the rebound. His bank shot gave WSU a 49-44 lead and completed an 8-0 run.
The Volunteers cut the lead to 51-49 before Cotton went to work again. He made a three from the wing for a 54-49 lead. His free throws made it 56-49 with 5:20 to play. His bounce pass set up Chadrack Lufile for a layup and the crowd went crazy with a 58-49 lead, forcing a Vols timeout with 4:37 remaining.
What little Cotton left undone in the second half, Carter cleaned up. He scored all 11 of his points in the second half and grabbed five rebounds. His efforts on the backboards led the way for WSU, which out-rebounded the Volunteeers 36-31. Tennessee entered the game out-rebounding opponents by 10 a game.
Marshall knew that handling Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee’s twin 6-8 roadblocks, was a must. Neither reached double figures in scoring and Stokes, limited by fouls, grabbed four rebounds, less than half his average. Carter played a major role, matching their power with his quickness and wingspan.
“They are so strong and they spread out and they get great position,” Marshall said. “So we worked on it diligently for a couple of days. We try not to leave any stone unturned when it comes to the grind of securing the ball.”