Wichita State players are asked over and over again to describe what makes their team great.
The Shockers try, usually explaining that they are tough and they work hard and they take it one game at a time. They are better at showing why history is on their side, showing it by diving for loose balls in blowouts and passing up good shots for great ones.
History is kind to teams who execute those parts of the game and the Shockers are proof.
No. 2 WSU routed Missouri State 67-42 on Saturday in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at Scottrade Arena. It plays second-seeded Indiana State on Sunday in the championship game.
The Shockers (33-0) made a bunch of three-pointers and dunks and ran the fourth-seeded Bears (20-12) out of hope by halftime. In the second half, WSU didn’t let the Bears score, and that’s only a small exaggeration.
The Shockers never quit doing the difficult things and that is why they are on the verge of adding to college basketball history in Sunday’s title game. With the margin 20 points in the second half, WSU’s Darius Carter knocked the ball from MSU’s Ron Mvouika and dove on the floor. Several teammates followed. Ron Baker grabbed the ball and called timeout before falling over the sideline.
Shocker coaches reacted as if WSU made the play of the season, firing off the bench to high five and clap.
“You get in, you play hard,” Carter said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Simple enough. For the Shockers, all that hustle and sweat puts them in the same chapters with Kentucky, UNLV and Larry Bird. They can finish off a remarkable run on Sunday.
The Shockers can win their 34th game without a loss and enter the NCAA Tournament with the most wins in the 76-year history of the event. It can win the MVC for the first time since the event moved to St. Louis in 1991, and for the first time since 1987. A win Sunday likely wraps up the first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the program.
Carter, from Akron, Ohio, grew up watching the NBA because of his friendship with LeBron James. Even a guy raised on the 24-second shot clock understands this landmark season.
“I think we deserve to be talked about with those teams,” he said.
Nobody in the MVC is arguing.
“They handled us,” MSU coach Paul Lusk said. “I thought we played as well as we could from a defensive standpoint. They just hit some unbelievable shots. When they’re rolling like that, they’re going to be tough to deal with.”
WSU made 8 of 10 threes in the first half to build a 33-19 lead, highlighted by a 17-0 run. It started the second half by holding the Bears to 1-of-10 shooting. MSU’s Christian Kirk made a jumper with 17:30 to play in the game and the Bears didn’t score again until Mvouika’s jumper with 8:21 to play.
WSU’s 24-0 run in the second half allowed coach Gregg Marshall to start clearing his bench with almost nine minutes to play.
“We got that run going, and as a defender, you don’t want to stop that run,” Baker said. “You dig your feet in and keep playing hard-nosed defense.”
Cleanthony Early led WSU with 20 points, making 3 of 6 three-pointers. Tekele Cotton added 13 points, making 3 of 4 threes.
Wichitan Gavin Thurman led MSU with nine points. The Bears played much of the game without two seniors. Keith Pickens played three minutes before he injured his groin and did not return. Leading scorer Jarmar Gulley, who took an elbow to the jaw, played 14 minutes and scored five points.
The Shockers shot 50 percent and made 9 of 20 three-pointers. The Bears shot 31.9 percent from the field and missed 16 of their 21 threes. WSU’s first-half accuracy ruined MSU’s plan to keep its defense tight around the lane and stop WSU from scoring on dunks and follow shots.
“It sure loosens them up when (we’re) hitting shots,” Marshall said. “Then they extend their defense a little bit and then you get close-outs that you can penetrate and, maybe, passing lanes that weren’t there previously.”
WSU held the Bears to its lowest score of the season and the fourth-lowest by any team in a tournament game. The Bears took few shots without a hand in their way and scored 14 points in the lane. The bigger, stronger Shockers bumped them off their routes and deflected passes. WSU’s presses caused turnovers or ate up time on the shot clock to further disrupt the Bears.
“They’re just really physical,” MSU guard Austin Ruder said. “It causes problems, getting open, running stuff, making cuts.”
The Shockers wrapped it up with a dominating run to start the second half. They dunked. They dove on the floor for loose balls. They blocked shots. They gave the Bears no hope. A 33-19 halftime lead ballooned to 61-23 in an extended flurry of Shocker highlights.
“It wasn‘t a whole lot of fun to sit through,” Lusk said. “They wore us down. We couldn’t score.”
WSU fast-forwarded thoughts to Sunday with a 17-0 run in the first half that inspired a fan to hold a sign reading: “Still not a believer? Seriously?”
Hard to argue, at least on this weekend.
MSU’s Dorrian Williams scored with 8:49 to play in the first half, cutting WSU’s lead to 13-12. The Bears didn’t score again until Thurman made a shot in the lane over two defenders with 2:12 remaining. By that time, WSU led 30-12. It buiried the Bears with threes by Cotton, Early and Baker to go up 22-12.
Even when things went wrong for the Shockers, they turned out right. Gulley broke up a pass to Kadeem Coleby. The ball bounced to Early, who sank a long jumper, and Gulley ended up on the floor and didn’t return until the second half.
WSU can win No. 34 on Sunday, pushing it past Memphis (2008) and UNLV (1987) for most wins entering the NCAA Tournament.
More history awaits. Indiana State is in the way.