March 1, 2014

Wichita State completes perfect regular season with 23-point win

Wichita State perfected the art of the regular season.

Wichita State perfected the art of the regular season.

The second-ranked Shockers feasted on the drudgery and fatigue of long practices, demanding coaches, travel and picky film sessions. Hour to hour, day by day, they did everything asked – boxing out, lifting weights, diving for loose balls, proper foot angles and refusing to overlook opponents – and it paid off in ways no other college basketball team can match.

Wichita State is 31-0, and ready to make more history.

The second-ranked Shockers routed Missouri State 68-45 on Saturday at Koch Arena to complete NCAA Division I’s first unbeaten regular season since St. Joseph’s in 2003-04.

“Today was a beautiful day for the history of basketball,” Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet said.

WSU (31-0, 18-0 Missouri Valley Conference) matched the crowd’s energy from the start with a series of dunks, blocks, no-look passes and three-pointers. The highlight reel served as a reminder of just how badly the Shockers outmatched MVC competition this season. The Bears (19-11, 9-9) never had a chance, even after pushing WSU to overtime in January.

“That was pretty special,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “This group really enjoys a challenge. They embrace the grind. It’s really an easy group to coach.”

WSU became the first team to win 31 games without needing postseason play. It became the first MVC unbeaten team since Bradley went 16-0 in 1985-86, and matched the 1927-28 Oklahoma team as the only conference member to go 18-0. The Shockers finished 17-0 at home, perfect for the third time since the arena opened in 1955.

The crowd came to see that history and they did their part, standing until late in the first half and roaring at every Shocker success. WSU’s fierce defensive effort in the opening minutes combined with the revved-up crowd to create a wave that rolled over the Bears.

“After that first stop, I don’t think I’ve heard Koch Arena as loud as I did tonight,” WSU guard Ron Baker said.

With just more than a minute to play, Marshall started pulling his starters to thunderous ovations. With 57 seconds to play, the “Undefeated” cheer rocked the Roundhouse. When he pulled Baker, he popped his No. 31 jersey and nobody needed a decoder ring to understand the significance.

Forward Cleanthony Early led WSU with 19 points. Baker added 13. WSU shot 51.2 percent and outscored the Bears 19-9 at the foul line. They held MSU to 16-of-51 shooting and out-rebounded them 43-25.

Jarmar Gulley led the Bears with 15 points.

“They really defend,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. “We had no answers tonight and we couldn’t do anything from an offensive standpoint. We struggled to score on the blocks. We struggled to score everywhere.”

Marshall moved the senior day ceremony to after the game, a response to last season’s loss to Evansville that cost WSU a share of the MVC title.

“Last year, I had at least one player with tears running down his face as the ball was tipped up,” he said. “We kind of played like that; we played like we needed a good cry.”

No worries with this team, which keeps its emotions under control until the moment calls for a victory celebration. They remembered falling behind by 18 points in the first half on Jan. 11 at Missouri State. They remembered needing to rally from 19 down with less than 12 minutes to play to survive in overtime, the closest call during the 31-game streak.

WSU led 8-1 in the opening minutes and gave the pumped-up crowd no reason to sit. They extended the lead to 18-6 on Darius Carter’s dunk on a no-look pass from Baker.

WSU held the Bears to 8-of-27 shooting in the first half. MSU freshman Austin Ruder, who got loose for five three-pointers and 17 points in the first meeting, took only three shots in the first half, all rushed and off target.

“We didn’t any extra motivation other than the fact we knew we laid an egg that first half playing them,” VanVleet said. “If you want to win conference tournaments and play in postseason, your defense has to be up to par.”

Missouri State’s Devon Thomas scored with 8:45 to play, cutting WSU’s lead to 24-10. The Bears didn’t make another field goal until Ron Mvouika’s three-point play with 2:29 remaining in the first half. The Shockers expanded their lead to 33-12 in that span and led 39-21 at halftime.

“They set the tone with their defense,” Ruder said. “We started off downhill and didn’t get anything going uphill until the second half. By then, it was too late.”

Way too late.

The second half poked by at times, all just a warmup for the celebration and senior day ceremony. The Shockers walked into the tunnel, surrounded by fans, and headed to the locker room for their traditional “Did we get that W? Yea!” cheer.

It sounded perfect.

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