History didn’t come easily for Wichita State.
Well, not as easily as most. Perhaps that made it sweeter.
No. 2 Wichita State is 34-0 and will take more wins into the NCAA Tournament than any team in the event’s 76-year history. The Shockers defeated Indiana State 83-69 on Sunday in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at Scottrade Center. WSU secured the Valley’s automatic bid to the NCAAs, unnecessary as it is, and is expected to earn a No. 1 seed, the first in program history.
It is WSU’s first tournament title since 1987 and its first in St. Louis, where the tournament moved in 1991.
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The Shockers collected their championship booty, plaques, hats and T-shirts and a big trophy. They took self-portraits on the award stand and signed autographs and answered endless questions. Senior Chadrack Lufile danced and danced some more. Media relations director Larry Rankin grabbed the game ball, wondering if the College Basketball Hall of Fame might be interested.
The players and coaches cut down the nets on both ends of the court. Most of the 7,500 WSU fans stayed to watch, soaking in what so many frustrating losses denied them in St. Louis.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall thought of the fans who made the trip for years without reward. Sophomore Ron Baker said the win made him happy for the fans and his family. Senior Cleanthony Early talked about how fun it is to learn lessons from winning.
“In no way shape or form do you have to lose a basketball game to get better,” he said. “What we’ve accomplished together is very special. Our mentality is to go out and accomplish our win by taking advantage of that game at that moment and playing our hearts out. That’s what got us to this point.”
WSU went 31-0. Then it went 3-0. Its next goal is 6-0 and cutting down nets in Texas on April 7.
“It’s a very, very big-time accomplishment, but we understand it’s just a number and we’re trying to make noise in two weeks,” Baker said. “When I’m tired and 60 years old, I’ll look back and say, ‘Hey, we were 34-0.’ ”
The top-seeded Shockers defeated Evansville 80-58 on Friday and Missouri State 68-45 on Saturday. The second-seeded Sycamores pushed the Shockers into the game’s final 10 minutes. Foul trouble and a finger injury took Indiana State guard Jake Odum out for critical stretches in the second half and the Sycamores couldn’t afford the absence.
Odum picked up his fourth foul, for bumping Baker, with 10:08 to play. He disputed the call and declined to comment on it after the game. He went to the bench and the Sycamores, down 57-50 after Baker’s free throws, got off their plan with Odum sitting.
“It’s guys trying because their leader’s over on the sideline,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “We got quick. Guys try to make plays and we cast up some quick threes. All of a sudden, it’s a 13-0 run.”
After Odum sat, Manny Arop missed a long jumper. Dawon Cummings missed a guarded three. WSU’s Tekele Cotton, who scored 20 points, made a three for a 62-50 lead. After a charge on Indiana State’s Ted Kitchell, Fred VanVleet made a three. Odum returned, too late, and missed a shot. VanVleet made another three for a 68-50 lead with 5:39 to play.
“That what the championship teams do,” Lansing said. “They do not have weaknesses. If anybody could see one, I’d like to hear it because we couldn’t find any.”
The Sycamores made one more push, which served only to give the Shockers another chance to show off. They pulled within nine, 68-59, on Justin Gant’s banked-in three with 4:13 remaining. Dawon Cummings’ three cut the lead to 72-64 with 3:05 to play.
Then VanVleet, voted the league’s top player, closed things down as the crowd chanted, “MVP.”
“Someone had to make a shot,” he said. “Our offense was stagnant. I knew I had to be more aggressive.”
He answered Cummings’ three with one near the end of the shot clock. Marshall said VanVleet’s look reminded him of the final minutes of last season’s game against Gonzaga. VanVleet beat the shot clock to stick a dagger in the Zags that day in Salt Lake City, connecting on one of the most memorable shots in Shocker history.
“I said ‘OK, we’re going to win the game,’ ” Marshall said. “It’s pretty nice, pretty comforting to have him make those type plays.”
VanVleet, who led WSU with 22 points, kept coming. He made a twisting layup for a 78-67 lead. He stripped Arop and drove the length of the court for another layup and an 80-67 lead.
The crowd chanted “Undefeated.” They can keep chanting for 12 more days. Then WSU starts another tournament.