Against Bradley, Wichita State will measure progress by mental sharpness, not margin of victory.
The Shockers had every reason to blow off the Braves and look ahead, courtesy of late December’s historic rout in Peoria, Ill. WSU knew it enjoyed a physical edge. On Friday, it also engaged mentally, took the Braves seriously and hammered them again, 78-41 at Koch Arena.
“We don’t relax against Bradley, and we continue to play well and play hard,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Against other teams, we’ve not done that. I was very pleased with how we continued to push.”
WSU’s performance didn’t quite measure up to the 90-51 win on Dec. 28, Bradley’s worst loss in 108 seasons of home games. It was close enough for both parties. Bradley played tougher for longer in the rematch. WSU (14-3, 5-1 Missouri Valley Conference) didn’t get as many easy baskets as in the first game because Bradley (5-13, 0-6) cut down on turnovers. WSU also missed point guard Joe Ragland, out with a sprained right toe.
“That game at home _ they just kicked us,” Bradley coach Geno Ford said. “In this one, I think we tried to compete. Obviously, we didn’t get enough done.”
WSU beat the Braves for the fifth straight time, matching its longest streak in the 127-game series. Bradley lost its ninth straight, a streak that began on Dec. 17.
The Shockers know they are on comeback watch. In recent games, they’ve built double-digit leads and watched them dwindle. It makes fans nervous. Coaches and players don’t love it, either. On Friday, they had none of that.
“We get overconfident when we get a big lead,” WSU forward Carl Hall said. “We relax. That’s when teams come back. We just wanted to jump out on them early, and keep the lead.”
A balanced offense (five players scored eight or more) and 55.8-percent shooting kept the Shockers from falling into that rut again. Garrett Stutz recorded his sixth double-double of the season with 16 points 13 rebounds, one off his career high. David Kyles broke out of a shooting slump to make 4 of 6 threes and score 16 points. Carl Hall added 11 points.
Bradley stuck close early, trimming WSU leads of 8-0 and 18-8 into more manageable scores. Shocker turnovers kept it close, but the Braves failed to cash in big. Then the Shockers closed the half on a 16-5 run for a 39-24 lead that matched the earlier game.
Kyles started it with a lob dunk from Toure Murry. He added two threes for half the points. Hall did his work in the paint, scoring on two post-ups and four free throws for the other half of the burst.
“When David is knocking down shots, it makes everything easier in the post,” Hall said. “They can’t double when our shooters are on, and that helped me a lot.”
WSU didn’t mess around after halftime, a danger spot in recent games. Tekele Cotton’s jumper made the lead 50-29 with 14:49 to play and the Shockers didn’t let up.
Stutz and Hall teamed up for an inside attack that caused Ford to marvel at its efficiency. They combined to make 8 of 11 shots and score 27 points. Kyles’ revival relieved Marshall, who put him in the starting lineup for a shot of confidence. Kyles shot 30.8 percent from the floor in the first five MVC games.
“We debated who to go with in the starting lineup, whether it be Ben (Smith) or David,” Marshall said. “Honestly, we just thought David needed it more.”