The first two words usually used to describe cotton are soft and fluffy.
The first two words usually used to describe Wichita State junior guard Tekele Cotton are not. Tough and fierce, perhaps. Resolute and determined. Maybe even mean and nasty, from the harder-edged crowd.
Cotton — with a lower-case c — is what the sheets that help us sleep at night are made of. Tekele Cotton was Tennessee’s worst nightmare Saturday afternoon at Intrust Bank Arena.
Like a commando rescuing his troops, Cotton took over the game in the second half, which is when he scored all 19 of his points, had four of his five rebounds and three of his four assists. He went a little crazy at the midway point of the half and it started with a ridiculously athletic blocked shot on the interior that most in the crowd of 14,356 couldn’t wait to get home to see on replay.
That block not only saved two points, it propelled No. 12 Wichita State on a 17-5 run that turned a three-point deficit into a nine-point lead over just more than five minutes. It also helped give WSU its first 10-0 start to a season.
Cotton scored 11 of those points in a span of 4:13. And it wasn’t just the scoring. It was the way Cotton defended, rebounded, passed, shot, drew contact, made free throws, blew kisses to the crowd, dressed up as Santa and made 12 reindeer fly.
Cotton was what every Shocker fans wants under his or her Christmas tree. He was the game’s star, but then deflected attention when it was over. Not only is Cotton good, but he’s humble. And it’s not a show.
This is nothing new. When Cotton was such an instrumental part of last season’s run to the Final Four, it was almost impossible to get him to say anything juicy about his contribution. He says it’s about the team and about playing hard for his coach. When I asked him to describe in detail his incredible second-half surge, he said something about wanting to do it for his teammates.
I’m looking for a great quote and Cotton’s giving the credit to everybody else. Gee, thanks.
At least Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall isn’t shy about praising the 6-foot-2 Cotton, who seems to morph into a bigger or smaller player depending on the circumstances. With Cotton, 6-2 is more of a guideline than a hard line.
“First of all, the block was an incredible play,” Marshall said of Cotton’s biggest moment.
But there were others, obviously, with a player who scored 19 points in one half, though he’s not regarded as a big scoring threat.
Stop right there, Marshall said. He wasn’t surprised Cotton went on a scoring spree based on what he saw in a Friday afternoon practice at Intrust.
With leading scorer Ron Baker hobbling on a badly-swollen ankle, one that gave doubt to whether he would play Saturday, Cotton took on a larger practice role.
“Baker’s in a chair at courtside and it looks like several golf balls right under his skin on his ankle,” Marshall said. “And Cotton was a man possessed. Maybe it was a matter of, ‘OK, Ron’s out, we need something else than just great defense and rebounding.’ But Tekele took over our practice (Friday) like I have never seen him play.
“I actually texted him yesterday and asked him who was that guy he brought to practice. He said something like, ‘Ha, ha, coach, that was me.’ And I said to make sure he brought that guy to the game against Tennessee.”
Baker was significantly limited, although Marshall praised him for playing 32 minutes. Point guard Fred VanVleet slowed down considerably on offense after a quick start. Forward Cleanthony Early missed 5 of 6 three-point attempts. The Shockers needed an ignition and Cotton went up in flames.
“He was all over the court,” VanVleet said of Cotton. “He was rebounding, scoring, playing defense. He broke through for us when we really needed some scoring.”
Cotton, though, was quick to point out the 11-point, 14-rebound breakout game of junior center Darius Carter. I swear, Cotton didn’t comprehend what all the fuss was about.
“I just tried hard not to get too frustrated in the first half,” he said. “And to let the game come to me. That’s really all I was trying to do.”
I don’t know. It didn’t seem like the game came to Cotton. It seems like he took it, locked it up and threw away the key.
Wichita State was in a fight to become the first Shocker team in history to open 10-0. For a while, it didn’t look like it was going to happen against a big, physical, quick Tennessee team that stood toe to toe with WSU.
Until, that is, something tough and fierce hit the Vols between the eyes. It was Cotton. Tekele Cotton.