Every so often, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall brings up his team’s defense during the exhibition trip in Canada. The Shockers gave up so many points, he told them they would need to score 80 or more to have any chance at winning.
Six months later, the Shockers are scoring 80 almost every game and their defense barely gives up 60. On Sunday, WSU defeated Loyola 81-64 at the Gentile Center after holding the Ramblers to five second-half baskets, two in the final 10 minutes.
“That’s where the game changed, when our defensive tempo stepped up,” Shocker forward Rashard Kelly said. “We still haven’t put together a full, collective, consistent 40-minute game. The good thing about it is that we’re finding ways to improve and win.”
Marshall ran through a list of Shockers who are playing tougher defense now compared to a few weeks or months ago. Kelly and Zach Brown are embracing their roles as defense-first forces. Conner Frankamp evoked a comparison to Fred VanVleet for his tenacity annoying post players last week. Shaq Morris’ shot-blocking skills are on display more often because he’s not in foul trouble.
“We’re not giving up 80 points any more,” Marshall said. “That’s the key.”
WSU (23-4, 13-1 MVC) won its eighth straight game to keep pace with Illinois State atop the Missouri Valley Conference. It defeated the Ramblers for the 11th straight time, a streak that started in 1976.
Landry Shamet and Frankamp both scored 16 for the Shockers. Shamet also had seven assists and seven rebounds. Kelly added 11 points and six rebounds. Morris had 10 points and nine rebounds.
Loyola (16-11, 6-8) dropped its fourth straight game. Clayton Custer led Loyola with 19 points. Milton Doyle added 13 on 3-of-14 shooting. Aundre Jackson, who scored 13 points in the first half, scored two in the second.
Loyola’s shooting and driving ability can stress a defense when the ball is moving and legs are fresh. Not many teams can employ as many perimeter scorers.
“They play five guards at a time,” Shamet said.
After acknowledging Brown’s defense on Doyle and WSU’s overall skill at stopping his team, Ramblers coach Porter Moser also blamed his players for falling into bad habits. Moser watched them go one-on-one and take guarded shots, forgetting some of the crisp passing and cutting that worked in the first half.
“We did it because we were moving the ball,” Moser said. “We had two assists the second half. Everyone took their turn breaking off on their own.”
Turnovers obscured some good defensive work in the first half for the Shockers. They gave the ball away, often against Ramblers swarming post players, eight times to result in 15 Loyola points.
“We were very sloppy with the ball in the first half, with our passes, in particular,” Marshall said.
The Shockers stopped giving the Ramblers prime possessions in the second half and its defense gradually took over. They held the Ramblers to 24-percent shooting (6 of 25) in the second half. WSU’s pressing and fast tempo wore down the Ramblers, who rely heavily on their starters for most of their minutes.
“At the end, it looked like they weren’t as fresh,” Marshall said. “We try to play really good defense to make them work for their looks.”
WSU made 15 of 27 shots after halftime. Frankamp scored all 16 of his points in the second half, making 7 of 12 shots.
“We try to find him,” Marshall said. “I thought Landry Shamet got him going with a corner three, right corner, in transition. That got him going. From that point forward, he really felt it.”
The Shockers led 59-52 when their edge in live bodies took over. Frankamp finished off a break by passing to Kelly for a dunk and a 61-52 lead. Frankamp’s three made it 68-54. After a Loyola miss, Markis McDuffie scored for a 70-54 lead.
“Our depth caught up to us,” Moser said. “We’re just not getting anything off the bench, in terms of the guards. We’re not getting it.”
WSU started the second half on an 13-6 run to go up 53-42 on two jumpers by Frankamp. The Ramblers committed two turnovers and missed a shot on their first three possessions of the half.
When the Shockers handled the ball, they produced good shots against the smaller Ramblers and made 13 of 26 shots, 5 of 9 from three-point range. Shamet scored 11 first-half points and handed out three assists.
Loyola stayed close with Jackson making 6 of 7 shots to score 13 points.
The Shockers trailed 27-23 when they played their best defense of the half to stop the Ramblers on four possessions and take a 29-27 lead.
A three by Brown gave the Shockers a 34-29 edge. The Shockers led 40-33 on a dunk by Kelly in the final seconds of the first half. But Kelly was called for a block, allowing Custer to complete a three-point play to cut WSU’s halftime lead to 40-36.