Wichita State junior Shaq Morris would have loved to be on the court when Rauno Nurger’s biggest moment of the Shockers’ NCAA Tournament opener against Dayton unfolded Friday night.
But it was Morris’ foul trouble that gave Nurger, the 6-foot-10 junior from Estonia, his opportunity.
In a game in which points were a coveted commodity, Nurger needed to think fast midway through the second half.
Guard Daishon Smith had driven the lane and was rejected by Dayton’s Charles Cooke. Nurger, who had set a screen for Smith at the top of the key, grabbed the long rebound at the free-throw line with four seconds on the shot clock.
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As Dayton’s Scoochie Smith and Ryan Mikesell hemmed Nurger in, he looked to pass. Instead, he split the defenders and dribbled in for a wide-open dunk that gave the Shockers a one-point lead. WSU never trailed again in its 64-58 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“I was hyped,” said Morris, who was limited to 14 minutes by his foul issues. “It kind of gave us a momentum spurt for a little bit, but the game was so up and down, you couldn’t really go with it fully.
“But he did great. When I saw him dunk it, I threw the towel on the ground and got happy.”
Nurger helped WSU navigate through the difficult challenge by scoring four points and grabbing seven rebounds in 12 minutes. His other field goal was also a dunk, coming off a pass from Landry Shamet in the first half.
“I felt like they were kind of clogging it up over there, and then I just saw an opening underneath the basket and I went for it,” Nurger said.
On a night the Shockers scored 18 points under their season average of 82.1, Nurger helped WSU lock down the Flyers. Dayton shot 31 percent (18 of 58), a number compounded by WSU’s 48-29 rebounding advantage.
“For me, I just try to play good defense and help the team get stops,” Nurger said. “I try to execute the offense and make good screens. I’ll roll to the basket and if it’s a wide-open shot, I try to dunk it.”
Morris was on the court with Nurger at times. Whether he was or not, he was pleased with his teammate’s performance.
“Rauno Nurger did a wonderful job,” Morris said. “He rebounded and defended well. He finished around the rim.
“Every time he’d come over to the bench and I was still on the bench, I would talk to him like ‘You’re playing great, just keep it up. Keep going.”
The defensive duel seemed to suit Nurger, who also had an assist.
“When Shaq got in foul trouble, Rauno really stepped up and made some big plays which people wouldn’t think of as big plays. But when we go back and watch film, we’re like, ‘Yeah, Rauno, you were in the right position. You made a winning play.’”