Evansville could not miss a shot. The Purple Aces bolted to a 19-7 lead over Wichita State on Saturday at Koch Arena, then built their advantage to 29-14.
And here’s what made Shocker fans nervous. Evansville has D.J. Balentine, the kind of player capable of shooting an inferior team to an upset. The 6-foot-2 Balentine had 14 of those first 29 points. The Shockers’ best defender, Tekele Cotton, was doing everything he could against Balentine. But not even Cotton could shut the guy off.
“I knew coming into this game that he was good and that he was going to make shots,” Cotton said.
He could not have expected Balentine to make every one, though. And for a while, that’s how it was going. Coming off a 43-point game in a loss to Northern Iowa last week, Balentine looked like he had every intention of leaving 43 in the dust.
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The feeling inside Koch as Balentine was tingling the nets was strange. And tense. Another sellout crowd tried to create an atmosphere that would rattle the Purple Aces — the way Evansville rattled the sellout crowd with its quick start.
Who would rattle most?
The answer: Evansville. Finally, the game changed. Wichita State picked up the pace, Balentine went 13:42 without scoring and the Shockers picked up win No. 23 against no losses, 81-67.
“We needed to get them out of rhythm,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “They were in such a great rhythm offensively.”
Suddenly, the Purple Aces started squeaking and squealing offensively. The Shockers turned up their defensive pressure. They made it difficult for Balentine to get open and for his teammates to squeeze in a pass.
You could see the rhythm pass from the Evansville players into the bodies of the Shockers. The Purple Aces became rhythm-less.
“It was a good thing to change our defense and it kind of sped them up,” WSU sophomore Ron Baker said. “We tried to get (Balentine) in the mid-range. He was either shooting threes or getting into the paint earlier. You have to crowd him and make it put it on the floor and contest his shot.”
Balentine, who is averaging 23 points, said the increased tempo of the game flustered his team. He also gave Cotton credit for his long scoreless streak.
“He reminds me of Troy Taylor, who we had last year,” Balentine said. “Cotton is a little taller, but they’re both really strong and aggressive. He tried to ride me off screens and play me physical. He did a good job.”
The Shockers were living dangerously. But there doesn’t seem to be a disadvantage they can’t overcome. Their clear athletic superiority over the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference eventually comes to the forefront in 40-minute games. While Balentine scored 26 points, no other Evansville player had more than eight.
WSU, meanwhile, had four players in double figures, but nobody with more than 14 points. One team had a star. The other had a team.
“It takes a lot to beat a team like Wichita State,” Balentine said. “A whole team effort and being able to execute a game plan like no other. Their ranking is well-deserved and their record shows it. They work hard for what they have. We had a very good start today but like any other good team, they’re going to give resistance and fight back.”
Evansville had one way to beat the Shockers and that was hoping against hope that Balentine could stay hot for 40 minutes.
Wichita State has numerous ways to win games. The Shockers rebound. They shoot an incredible amount of free throws because they know how to draw fouls. They force turnovers while limiting their own. They block shots. They can win with subtlety or blow an opponent’s doors off.
Is any lead safe against WSU?
The Shockers embark on their most interesting road trip of the season now, to play Indiana State on Wednesday and Northern Iowa on Saturday.
These are probably the only two potential losses left on WSU’s schedule. It’ll be freezing cold at both places and February is such a strange month for college basketball anyway. The dog days.
The Shockers embrace their perfect record. They fight for it. They do not acknowledge the pressure that it might build, instead refusing to admit it weighs on them in the slightest.
Everybody inside Koch Arena fought for 23-0 on Saturday as Evansville kept increasing its first-half lead. Fans implored the team to win. Marshall became even more animated than usual on the sideline. And the team rallied.
I don’t know how you beat the Shockers. And neither, apparently, does anyone else.