Wichita State left no doubt. During the game. During the celebration.
The 19th-ranked Shockers popped the cork on their reign as Missouri Valley Conference champions with an 81-58 win over Drake at sold-out Koch Arena on Saturday afternoon. The postgame party with streamers, fans on the floor, cell phones and scissors seemed a long time coming. WSU clinched a piece of the title 10 days earlier and didn’t celebrate much. It clinched sole ownership of the crown on the road Wednesday.
That set up Saturday with a game serving as a prelude to a party. With about eight minutes remaining, announcer Don Hall asked fans not to rush the court, a signal to warm up the scissors for cutting down the nets.
“It’s a special day for us, for our families and our fans,” WSU senior Toure Murry said. “We knew once that ball got tipped up we had to get ready to play.”
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WSU (26-4, 16-2 MVC) enters the MVC Tournament on an eight-game winning streak and avenged a 93-86 triple-overtime loss on Jan. 28. Drake (16-14, 9-9) will be the No. 7 seed even though it finished in a five-way tie for third.
Marshall came to the interview room carrying one of the nets. He watched his team handle pregame honors for five seniors and play most of the second half without ailing guard Joe Ragland, all with the knowledge the postgame fun depended on them winning.
As he expected, the Shockers gave him a low-stress afternoon.
“It’s a special group,” he said. “Once we clinched on Wednesday and we had to add one more goal to our list, that was to beat Drake and continue into the conference tournament on a positive.”
The Shockers did that with their usual talents, easily surviving a bad shooting night from three-point range. They held Drake to 35.6-percent shooting and outrebounded the Bulldogs 44-32. WSU outscored Drake by 10 points at the foul line.
Ben Smith led WSU with 18 points, making 4 of 8 threes. Garrett Stutz added 15 points and Murry contributed 14 points and seven rebounds. Ragland, who sat out Friday’s practice with a headache and cold, played in the first half. He remained in the training room most of the second half before joining the team on the bench in the final minutes.
“This is a well-oiled machine of a basketball team,” Marshall said. “We don’t have Joe Ragland. So we win by 23.”
Drake forward Ben Simons scored 21 points, only six in the second half. Guard Rayvonte Rice added 18, but 12 came in the final 11 minutes with WSU already in control.
“"We needed some guys to step up earlier in the game,” Drake coach Mark Phelps said. “Ben carried us, and we needed more than Ben."
The Shockers answered questions about their readiness by blowing out to a 12-1 lead. Simons, who scored 29 in the first meeting, made two three-pointers to cut the lead to 12-7. Two more from Simons kept Drake close at 15-13.
Simons made one more basket in the half. The Shockers kept Rice from his preferred driving lanes. Gradually, they pulled away. They led 36-25 at halftime, closing with a 7-0 burst.
Simons scored his final basket of the game with 17:04 to play, drawing Drake within 39-33. David Kyles made two free throws and then Murry took over. He stripped the ball from Simons near the foul line and dunked for a 43-33 lead. His layup made it a 12-point edge. Demetric Williams missed a three, and WSU’s Carl Hall kept the rebound alive for Murry to grab on a bounce and lay in for a 49-35 lead.
The Shockers scored on four straight possessions a few minutes later, started by Ben Smith’s basket and a Smith three. Tekele Cotton’s jumper and a basket by Kyles made it 67-45.
Marshall cleared his bench in the final minute, giving the crowd a chance to cheer the seniors. He inserted Ragland with 18 seconds remaining to give him his ovation.
“Fun time,” Kyles said. “Now that it’s over, I’m going to spend time with my family. We’ll come back on Monday and we’ll practice again and get back at it.”