It was obvious Wichita State had played its best basketball of the season well before the final horn sounded on its 81-63 victory over Houston on Thursday.
Behind a deluge of 10 three-pointers and 59.4 percent shooting, No. 9 WSU buried Houston in the first half with its second most-efficient offensive half of the season — and most impressive considering the competition.
But was this an aberration, a night where the Shockers simply couldn’t miss for the first 20 minutes? Or was it a step toward this team returning to its dominant ways?
“We shot the ball very well and when the ball goes in the hole like that, it looks a lot better sometimes than it actually is,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “I’ll have to break it down and get back to you on that, but I thought we really executed well tonight.”
According to Synergy Sports, WSU made 10 catch-and-shoot attempts it deemed as “guarded” for a 59-percent success rate. Compare that to the season averages entering Thursday’s game — WSU was making four per game on 39-percent accuracy.
That helped WSU finish the first half scoring at 1.51 points per possession with a 75-percent effective field goal percentage — by far the best marks for a half against a quality opponent.
“They’re not going to have many first halves like that and hopefully we don’t either,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said.
Overshadowed by the offensive explosion was another stingy performance by WSU’s defense, following a solid effort at Connecticut in the American Athletic Conference opener. After holding UConn to 0.89 points per possession, WSU held Houston to 0.93 — the Cougars’ previous low this season was 1.03.
Much of the credit was given to defensive stopper Zach Brown following the game, as he held Rob Gray, the returning leading scorer in the AAC, to 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting as the primary defender.
“That’s just Zach Brown for you,” WSU’s Landry Shamet said. “We knew Gray was their guy, but Zach Brown is our defensive stopper and he takes that task very seriously. At halftime he was imitating moves that Rob Gray was doing, so he takes that very serious. I give him a lot of the credit for disrupting a lot of their timing.”
WSU forced Houston into 12 long two-pointers, held the Cougars to 36-percent shooting at the rim, and limited them to just one corner three-pointer — a shot that Houston was knocking down at a 54-percent rate.
It was a defensive effort that can be replicated, and confidence was surely gained by limiting an offense that was ranked in the top-40 by KenPomeroy.com, an advanced statistical web site that values efficiency. Now WSU can build on it with two of the nation’s worst offenses upcoming with South Florida at home on Sunday and at East Carolina on Thursday.
“We’ll take a win over a team that caliber any day of the week,” Marshall said.
“It does feel good, especially for as good of a team as Houston is,” Shamet said. “We have a lot of respect for them. They’re going to do really well in the conference, so for us to put the foot on the gas early like that and make a statement in the first half, I think that was huge.”
Wichita State can’t expect to shoot like it did in the first half against Houston, but this team doesn’t need to. Shamet, Conner Frankamp, and Austin Reaves have made 87 combined three-pointers (six threes per game) on 45.5 percent accuracy.
WSU has now made at least nine three-pointers in eight of its last nine games and is shooting 40.2 percent on three-pointers as a team, the 26th-best mark in the country.
But for one night, the team enjoyed a performance where it seemed like it couldn’t miss in the first 20 minutes — highlighted by a stretch where the Shockers made five consecutive three-pointers in less than three minutes late in the first half.
The sequence was capped by a pull-up Frankamp three-pointer in transition that sent the crowd into hysterics. As Sampson pointed out, it was just “one of those nights.”
“I had a pretty good feeling,” Frankamp said with a smile.
"I knew it was going in," Shamet added. "It’s cool when he gets going, you kind of know it’s going to be a short possession so you just get back on defense."
South Florida at No. 9 Wichita State
- When: 3 p.m. Sunday
- Where: Koch Arena
- Records: USF 7-9, 0-3 AAC; WSU 12-2, 2-0
- Radio: 103.7-FM
- TV: CBSSN