Wichita State junior Shaq Morris settled into his locker-room chair Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, wrapping a towel around his weary head.
The disappointment of the Shockers’ season-ending 65-62 loss to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament still lingered. But Morris, WSU’s 6-foot-8 center, was candid in recalling the interior scrum he’d just waged with Kentucky freshman man-child Bam Adebayo.
“That was a great matchup,” said Morris, who scored 11 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked three shots. “Me and him battled basically the whole game. It was one of the best battles of the whole year.”
In the end, it was Adebayo’s block of freshman Landry Shamet’s desperation three-point attempt that punctuated Kentucky’s second NCAA victory over the Shockers in four seasons. Adebayo, a 6-10 forward from Little Washington, N.C., was mostly silent in the first half. But from the opening basket of the second half, Adebayo created problems for WSU, registering his eighth double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“As a whole, we were just trying to keep him out of the paint,” junior Rashard Kelly said. “But a team like that and with their skill level, they kept attacking. You can’t stop someone forever.”
The Shockers vowed to make that a priority after Adebayo scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in Kentucky’s 79-70 first-round victory over Northern Kentucky. A comment by WSU junior Darral Willis on Saturday about shutting down Adebayo’s rebounding became a talking point in the Wildcats’ locker room.
“I don’t do all that trash talking,” Adebayo said. “I just go out there and do what my teammates need me to do.”
Adebayo’s biggest influence on the game – aside from the last-second block of Shamet’s shot – came with Morris on the bench late in the second half. Just before that, Adebayo fell hard to the court on a foul by Morris.
With Willis guarding him, Adebayo scored consecutive baskets for the Wildcats to stretch their lead to 52-46 with 7:10 remaining.
“When you fall, you wake up a little bit,” Adebayo said. “We got things going in the huddle and came back out there and just kept fighting.”
Morris held the upper hand against Adebayo in the first half, scoring eight points. But he had just one basket and a free throw after the break.
Morris couldn’t pinpoint the toughest part of facing Adebayo.
“Athleticism, size, girth, NBA body,” he said. “He’s basically a freshman who’s ready for the league and he just played his heart out tonight, too.”
The Shockers relied on Morris’ physicality and help defense to keep Adebayo contained early. But as Kentucky guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk kept penetrating in the lane, Adebayo was able to slip free for follow shots and dunks.
Monk created one of Adebayo’s best opportunities, lobbing to his teammate for a dunk after Morris came off to help Shamet on a screen. The basket put Kentucky up 40-37.
“They were trying to get him the ball a lot, but it was my job to stop that,” Morris said. “He scored off a lot of dump downs and tip dunks. It wasn’t really him trying to make a move on me, but he’s a hard dude to stop.”