Wichita State rarely looked uncomfortable or frustrated through its first 32 basketball games. They won 27 with a consistency and certainty that teams rarely challenged.
The Shockers hadn’t played anybody like Virginia Commonwealth.
Twelfth-seeded VCU made the fifth-seeded Shockers very uncomfortable in Thursday’s 62-59 win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Rose Garden. For most of the game, WSU didn’t resemble like the smooth-running machine that ascended to a top-20 ranking and looked like a solid candidate to play into the tournament’s second weekend, if not beyond.
“They definitely rushed us and took us out of our offense the whole game,” WSU senior Toure Murry said. “We had to play breakdown basketball, and that played into their hands.”
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That summed up a crushing defeat for WSU (27-6). So did the vacant looks and red eyes in the WSU locker room. So did coach Gregg Marshall’s cracking voice. So did the look on Garrett Stutz’s face after his last-second three bounced off the rim. A season that seemed destined to roll on forever ended abruptly in the school’s first NCAA game since 2006.
The Shockers played brilliant basketball in February to set the stage for one of the program’s finest moments. In March, however, the Shockers failed to find that level. VCU (29-6) took it away with a fierce defensive effort that smothered WSU’s best offensive threats and disrupted a normally efficient half-court offense. The Shockers committed an acceptable 12 turnovers, which only tells part of the story of VCU’s defensive success, which held WSU to a season-low in points.
“They’re not just going to give you the ball,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We felt like our pressure could bother them in other ways. They really weren’t able to run their sets as much as they normally do. They shot some turnovers, too. Any time you force a team to take a quick shot, and it’s not the best shot or the highest-quality shot, that’s just as good as a turnover.”
The last play of the game went the way much of the game did for WSU. VCU pressured WSU guard Joe Ragland to get the ball out of his hands and the play went nowhere from there. Murry rose up for a shot and a defender forced him to pass to Stutz. He had to back-pedal behind the three-point arc and shoot a desperation shot before the buzzer.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall said the play looked for several shooters coming off screens after a timeout with 12 seconds remaining. Nobody got open, and Murry tried to create.
“They’re not only athletic and play really hard, but they’re long and they are pretty aggressive,” Marshall said. “They did a good job on it. Joe couldn’t turn the corner. David (Kyles) was a little late using his screen to get to the left corner. So we ended up with that shot.”
Fitting, because much of the was defined by Ragland passing and Stutz missing guarded shots. Ragland scored 15 points, but VCU’s double-teams took the ball out of his hands for much of the game. He did not record an assist.
“I expected it, just because of percentages,” Ragland said. “I knew they would play the percentages. They obviously pressured the ball and the first half we didn’t handle it as well as we should have.”
Smart did exactly that, taking the ball out of the hands of a player who makes half his threes and making others score. He also made Ragland work against the press to tire him.
“He was the guy that concerned us more than anybody,” Smart said. “He’s gotten off in several games this year and had high 20s or 30s and you can’t beat them if he’s going to score that much. We decided to trap him out of ball screens and I think what that did is that it took away from his aggressiveness and made him pass the ball.”
With WSU’s offense out of whack, Stutz had a little role in the outcome of the game. He thrives in WSU’s halfcourt offense, and the Shockers rarely executed the sets that got him so many shots in the lane during the season. Stutz played 17 minutes, in part because of fouls, and missed 9 of 11 shots to score four points, nine below his team-leading average of 13.5. The Rams rarely allowed him to catch the ball close to the basket. When he did, he found shot-blockers in his way. Most damaging was a three-footer in the lane that he missed with 55 seconds remaining and WSU down 60-59.
“We’ve done a great job for the majority of the season holding teams under their average,” VCU guard Brandon Burgess said. “That was the emphasis on today’s game, holding Stutz and Ragland under their average.”
The Shockers trailed 34-25 at halftime, when VCU’s defense did its most damage and held WSU to 11-of-35 shooting. Halftime didn’t seem to help. The Rams led 46-33 with 13:41 remaining.
Then one of WSU’s five seniors made some plays. A switch to a zone defense slowed the Rams. WSU’s pressure defense rattled VCU. The game turned, almost enough for the Shockers to rally.
Senior guard David Kyles started the burst with a dunk after a turnover. His steal and layup cut VCU’s lead to 46-37. After a VCU miss, a long rebound started a rare fastbreak and Kyles swished a three to make it 46-40. Meanwhile, WSU’s zone choked off VCU’s drives and got the Rams standing around.
“It just slowed up their offense,” Murry said. “We got out to shooters and contested shots.”
WSU took its first lead since late in the first half on a corner three by Murry, 59-57 with 2:03 remaining. Burgess responded with a three, getting open in the corner against the zone, to regain the lead 60-59 with 1:29 to play. After Stutz missed the short shot, VCU rebounded and took a timeout with 28 seconds remaining. Guard Darius Theus drove past the front line of the zone and lofted a shot over Stutz that bounced around and in for a 62-59 lead with 20 second to play.
“I saw the middle was open,” Theus said. “I saw Stutz step up, so I know I had to float it high over him. I got a lucky bounce.”
WSU had no such luck on its final play.