In the end, Gregg Marshall put his trust in the seniors.
The senior class of Shaquille Morris, Rashard Kelly, Conner Frankamp, Zach Brown, Darral Willis and Rauno Nurger had brought No. 11 Wichita State to the precipice of an American Athletic Conference basketball championship in its inaugural season — and Marshall left it up to them to decide it.
It was a senior who left fly the potential game-winning shot, but Frankamp’s three-pointer missed its mark and Cincinnati’s players celebrated a 62-61 victory at Koch Arena on Sunday. The Bearcats improved to 27-4 and finished 16-2 in conference play, winning the title outright over WSU (24-6, 14-4), which had its seven-game winning streak snapped.
Depending on the outcome of Sunday’s other AAC games, WSU will more than likely be the No. 2 seed in the AAC tournament in Orlando starting Friday.
Jacob Evans led Cincinnati with a game-high 19 points, while Landry Shamet and Morris each paced WSU with 16 points. Morris added eight rebounds, while Shamet had five assists.
After falling behind 62-59, WSU’s defense produced four straight stops to set up the dramatic final minute. It began with a step-back Frankamp jumper to cut the deficit to 62-61 with 47 seconds left, then intensified when Jacob Evans missed a jumper and the rebound went out of bounds to WSU with 16.4 seconds left.
Shamet’s driving attempt was blocked out of bounds with nine seconds left. WSU had two timeouts remaining, but chose not to use one. Frankamp in-bounded to Morris, who gave the ball back to him in a hand-off. Frankamp dribbled out to set up a pull-up, contested three that went long. The rebound went to Willis, but he was unable to score the put-back before the buzzer.
The entire game was played in an intense atmosphere, and it didn’t take long for the CBS cameras to capture Koch Arena in peak form, as WSU climbed out of a 5-0 hole with a 10-2 run punctuated by a Shamet three and a Morris basket inside to send the legion of yellow-clad fans into a frenzy.
WSU’s lead grew to 15-11, as Brown finished a three-point play and Kelly scored on a driving layup. But the Shockers would hit a 6-minute field goal drought, as they would come up empty on 12 of their next 13 possessions.
During that time span, Cincinnati reeled off a 16-1 to take the largest lead of the game, 27-16 with 8:36 remaining in the first half on Keith Williams’ three-pointer. WSU misssed nine straight shots and committed three turnovers, as its only point came on a Willis free throw.
A Shamet three-pointer in transition at 7:04 ended the drought and Brown followed with a three of his own. The two sides would trade baskets for the final five minutes of the half until Willis poured in a flurry of seven points in the final 80 seconds to trim Cincinnati’s halftime lead to 37-36.
Willis started the barrage by canning a wide open three, then made a pair of free throws before hitting a jumper as time expired. The fans gasped when Willis pump-faked from the perimeter and took a dribble with less than two seconds remaining, but his free-throw line jumper beat the clock and swished through as the horn sounded.
WSU tied Cincinnati four times (at 37, 41, 43, and 45) in the first seven minutes, but the breakthrough didn’t come until a 5-0 spurt from Markis McDuffie. Shamet found McDuffie in transition for an open three from the right wing, then Frankamp came up with a steal the following possession and dished to McDuffie for the basket and 50-49 lead with 10:52 remaining — WSU’s first lead since midway through the first half.
The next three minutes would feature four WSU possessions with the lead and a chance to extend the lead, but ultimately came up empty. Willis had two shots blocked, then Frankamp missed on a pull-up jumper, and Shamet misfired on a three.
The teams would trade baskets down the stretch with WSU’s highlight being a vicious slam dunk by Kelly flying down the lane. Cincinnati took a 60-58 lead with 4:00 remaining on a Gary Clark bucket, then WSU committed a turnover on the ensuing possession and Clark tacked on two more free throws for a 4-point lead to set up the final drama.