Larry Bird is officially on notice. So is Hersey Hawkins.
No. 4 Wichita State cleared what appears to be its toughest obstacle to an unbeaten regular season with an 82-73 win over Northern Iowa at the McLeod Center on Saturday night.
Pair Saturday’s win with Wednesday’s at second-place Indiana State and the Shockers are through their toughest road swing. With that accomplishment, they are also in no mood to apologize for their schedule.
“Back to back, that's a chore for anyone,” coach Gregg Marshall said. “I challenge anyone that wants to talk about our league and our schedule to take that road trip and come out 2-0.”
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The Shockers (25-0, 12-0 Missouri Valley Conference) became the first Division I team to reach 25-0 since Memphis started 26-0 in 2008. The Shockers now take aim at joining Bird’s 1979 Indiana State team that went 33-0 before losing in the NCAA title game. Hawkins’ Bradley team is the last to go through the MVC schedule unbeaten, 16-0 in 1986.
WSU kept a crowd of 7,150, third-largest in arena history, quiet for long stretches in the second half. UNI (11-13, 5-7) lost for the fifth time in six games. Tekele Cotton led WSU with 18 points, one off his career high. Cleanthony Early added 16 points, all in the first half. Ron Baker handed out six assists to tie his career high.
Cotton made 4 of 7 three-pointers to foil UNI’s plans to sag off him. He entered the game shooting 29 percent from behind the arc, but is 8 of 14 the past three games.
“People started to not guard me,” he said. “I’ve just got to shoot with confidence. My teammates and coaches encourage me to do that, and I did.”
Seth Tuttle led the Panthers with 16 points, 10 in the first half.
The Shockers made 8 of 20 threes, shot 54.2 percent from the field and out-rebounded UNI 39-24.
“They’re the most physical team we’ve played all year and we’ve played some pretty good teams,” Tuttle said. “They just keep subbing in players. They’ve got three guys that come in at (center) that are basically the same player, constantly banging, constantly going to the offensive glass.”
That physical play wore down the Panthers, who made the game interesting with a good shooting night. They couldn’t overcome WSU’s other edges.
UNI started the second half with a 6-0 burst to cut WSU’s lead to 44-43. It didn’t take long for the Shockers to run right back.
Darius Carter started an 8-0 run with a basket for a 50-44 lead. After a UNI miss, he out-ran the Panthers and Baker found him with a one-handed bounce pass to produce a three-point play and a 53-44 lead. After a Panther airball, Baker again orchestrated a basket by faking a defender off his feet and dribbling into the lane before finding Cotton for a three as the shot clock expired for a 56-44 lead.
UNI made a mild rally after VanVleet went out with an injured right knee. The Panthers cut the lead to 60-52 on Matt Bohannon’s three. The Shockers quickly squashed those hopes, even with VanVleet flexing and rubbing his knee on the bench.
Carter made a nice pass out of a double team to find Cotton cutting for a dunk. After Baker’s missed three, Carter followed it in for a 64-52 win. A Panther turnover turned into an acrobatic layup off the glass by Cotton and sapped the noise and energy from the crowd.
Early kept his road show rolling in the first half, not without some bumps. He left the game twice, bothered by his right shoulder, before returning. After referees whistled him for a foul when he tangled with Marvin Singleton boxing out, he jumped in the air and yelled, “He grabbed my arm.”
VanVleet quickly grabbed Early to keep him from saying more before he went to the bench.
Early finished the first half with 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting and 6 of 7 free throws. He started WSU’s scoring with a corner three and made two free throws for 10-6 lead. He followed that with a three-point play, off nifty passes from Chadrack Lufile and Baker, for a 13-8 lead. He followed in miss and Baker found him open for a three on a break to put WSU up 26-20.
WSU’s 11-4 run gave it a 39-31 lead. The Panthers rallied with a four-point possession after Early’s foul on Singleton. Chip Rank’s three started the play and Singleton made one of two free throws to cut WSU’s lead to 39-35. Lufile came right back with a three-point play to stretch the lead to 42-35.
WSU led 44-37 at halftime after making 11 of 12 free throws and 5 of 12 threes.