As Evanville’s D.J. Balentine limped off the court, Wichita State’s Tekele Cotton gave the ace of the Aces a pat on the rear.
“He earned it,” Cotton said.
Yes, he did indeed.
Balentine also earned every one of his 31 points.
But that was part of the Shockers’ plan Friday in their 80-58 quarterfinal victory in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Cotton carried it out to near-perfection because Balentine only had six free-throw attempts. Four came after the game was all but settled in the second half.
“Guard him but don’t foul him,” Cotton said. “Once he gets to the free-throw line, he gets in a groove. And once he gets in a groove, it’s nearly impossible to stop him.”
Like Balentine was in Thursday’s victory over Drake, when the Valley’s leading scorer went to the line 13 times, made 11 and scored 30 points. Or like he has been nine other times this season when he’s put up double-digit free-throw attempts.
Balentine has been a thorn before for No. 2 WSU, but the same strategy prevailed. He scored 26 on the Shockers earlier this season – and saw the free-throw line twice.
“Big point was to keep Balentine off the line,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We didn’t want to go for the shot fakes.”
Evansville, a ninth-seed, came into this game knowing it needed a miracle to beat the so-far unbeatable Shockers. No one would say it, but that miracle had to be Balentine.
And for a while, he looked like he might be up to the task. Even with Cotton inches from his face, the 6-foot-2 sophomore buried one three-pointer after another. He made 4 of 6 and had 17 points by halftime, when WSU led by 10.
“If he’s going to make those tough shots, he makes them,” said Cotton, who had his own offense going with 11 points. “We just have to live with those shots.”
WSU does what it usually does when it needs to fight through a hump – or in this case Balentine’s hot hand. Turn up the pressure defense.
That put the game on a faster pace, disrupting Evansville’s chances in its half-court offense.
“Cotton was really good,” Marshall said. “You have to give Balentine credit. He hit some incredible shots. He’s a great scorer because he scored through and over that defense.”
Cotton fought through screen after screen set for Balentine in the Aces’ motion offense, to stick as close to him as possible. It was like going through an revolving door that just wouldn’t stop.
“They know how to run those screens shoulder to shoulder,” Cotton said.
And Cotton knows how to defend.
“Tekele is a terrific defender,” Balentine said. “He knows how not to let me get easy shots or get going at the line.
“They did a really good job of packing the paint so I couldn’t drive and get fouled.”
He went down hard during one of his trips in the lane, landing on his side midway through the second half with WSU leading by 21.
That’s when he limped off with what he was told was a hip pointer, but he returned a few minutes later to drop in a couple more three-pointers.
“I thought he might have been cramping,” Marshall said. “To play the way he played for that long, you’d have to be super human not to cramp.
“When you can score with the defense he was seeing, you can score. He’s a big-time scorer. I’m not looking forward to that.”
To be sure, the Shockers will be seeing much more of Balentine’s sweet shot in years to come.
But for now, this is their year.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Cotton. “We’ve just begun.”