Eight days ago, Wichita State boasted a 20-4 record and a solid NCAA Tournament resume. Then the Shockers found a way to get better, even while facing a tough stretch in the schedule.
It is mid-February, and the 24th-ranked Shockers are finding ways to reach new peaks on their way to the Missouri Valley Conference title. They handled third-place Missouri State 73-58 on Wednesday at sold-out Koch Arena, clinching at least a share of the Valley championship.
“We’re playing how we all envisioned,” WSU guard Joe Ragland said. “We’ve got big goals, and this is the time you’ve got to work to accomplish those goals.”
WSU (23-4, 14-2 MVC) can clinch the Valley title with one more win and it gets its first chance at Illinois State on Wednesday. MSU (16-12, 9-7) saw a three-game win streak snapped.
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The Shockers shifted into a higher gear three games ago and the results are impressive. Far from fading in February, they are improving.
• WSU made 59.5 percent of its shots against the Bears, the conference leader in scoring defense and shooting defense. That sizzling night comes after making 58.2 percent at then-No. 17 Creighton and 55.9 percent against Northern Iowa.
“They’re built to win championships,” MSU coach Paul Lusk said after watching his team allow an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent for the second time this season. “We couldn’t stop them in transition. We simply couldn’t stop them.”
The Shockers made 11 of 19 three-pointers, making them 31 of 54 (57.4 percent) in the past three games. WSU handed out 17 assists, eight by guard Toure Murry.
“Guys know a good shot from a bad shot,” WSU center Garrett Stutz said. “We’re a veteran team and no one’s taking bad shots.”
• Stutz spent most of the MVC schedule establishing himself as an unstoppable inside scorer. He made all four of his three-point shots against Missouri State and is 8 of 12 behind the arc in his past six games. That leaves defenses no good way to guard him.
“When he’s out there making threes like that, what are you going to do?” Lusk said.
Stutz scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, his 10th double-double of the season.
• Forward Ben Smith is WSU’s new defensive stopper. On Saturday, he held Creighton’s Doug McDermott, a national player of the year candidate, to 13 points on 14 shots. Wednesday, he guarded 2011 MVC Player of the Year Kyle Weems and limited him to 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting. Weems missed some opens shots, but Smith, and Carl Hall, made him shoot several under duress and refused to let him get comfortable.
“It starts at practice, just learning how to guard them and then when you’re out there you’ve got to play hard, limit their touches and make it hard for them,” Smith said.
Missouri State stuck with the Shockers in the first half, answering WSU’s attempts to pull away with Caleb Patterson and Anthony Downing scoring. The Shockers led 32-22 before the Bears ended the half on a 10-2 run to trail 34-32.
WSU set the tone for the second half with seven points in the first 1:40 to grab a 41-32 lead and force Lusk to call timeout to regroup and quiet the crowd. The Bears cut the lead to 41-39 before threes by Demetric Williams and David Kyles started the decisive flurry. Ragland stripped Downing from behind to lead to a layup for Kyles and a 49-39 lead. Kyles made another three and scored after a Bears turnover against a press for a 56-42 lead.
“We started to run more and pick up the pace of the game,” Stutz said. “At that point, we got into a nice little rythmn.”
WSU’s defense did its part. It held MSU to 11 baskets in the second half and its changing press looks disrupted the Bears and moved the tempo from slow to fast.
“There were some good moments with our press,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “It really helped getting some deflections and some steals.”
WSU secured its first conference title since 2006 and the fans chanted “MVC, MVC” in the final seconds. The Shockers will hold off on serious celebrating until they win it outright, perhaps as early as Wednesday. Sharing is not in their plans.
“It’s a nice achievement, but it’s not our end goal,” Stutz said.