Wichita State’s John Robert Simon walked to the locker room at JQH Arena last season not knowing what to expect at halftime. He had joined the Shockers, as a walk-on, for a 16-game dream ride to a No. 6 national ranking.
After 20 minutes, that dream ride ended in the first half of game No. 17 with Missouri State leading 42-24.
“That was first time I had been through adversity,” Simon said. “We were getting our butts handed to us. It was good to see no one was freaking out, yelling at each other, getting in arguments. Everyone was calm.”
The more experienced Shockers expected coach Gregg Marshall to use his extensive vocabulary to enthusiastically let them know how poorly they played. Marshall considered that option as he composed his thoughts before entering the locker room.
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“We were just waiting for it to happen, and it never happened,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said.
Marshall went in calm.
“Calm as the other side of the pillow,” assistant coach Greg Heiar said. “Confident and calm.”
It worked beautifully, although not immediately, and the Shockers pulled off what is regarded as the program’s biggest comeback to win 72-69 in overtime on Jan. 11, 2014. No. 13 WSU (16-2, 6-0 Missouri Valley Conference) returns to the JQH Arena on Wednesday to play Missouri State (8-10, 2-4), back to the scene of what VanVleet considers the most important game of that historic 2013-14 season and its 35-game win streak.
“For last year, that was our loss, our point where we said, ‘All right, we’ve got to get some things straight, we can’t play that way,’” VanVleet said. “We were able to learn from that without losing. That was a big key for us in our maturity and our growth as a team.”
Marshall considered that big picture while he walked to the locker room as he prepared to speak to a team that hadn’t trailed by more than seven points in the second half of the previous 16 victories. Their biggest deficit had been 13 to BYU in Kansas City, a first-half lead they erased before halftime.
“I thought, ‘OK, there’s a good chance we will lose this game, so, what happens after that?’” he said. “The season’s not over. I’ll have to take these same guys and get them back up in three days.’ They had played so well for those first (16) game … so I tried not to go in there and say, ‘That’s horrible, you guys stink, we’ll never win another game.’ I didn’t want it to be like that.”
With a 16-0 record, the Shockers earned that patience from Marshall. He appealed to their pride, told them people around the nation would see the halftime score on the ESPN ticker and enjoy watching the unbeaten team lose. He told them to divide the second half into four-minute segments and win each one.
No hurry. No panic.
“He was calm — ‘Let’s see what we’re made of,’” VanVleet said. “A lot of people were watching — ‘It’s time for the streak to go down, blah, blah, blah.’”
The Bears made 8 of 14 three-pointers in the first half and 15 of 23 shots. Marshall didn’t feel as if the Shockers played bad defense, but it wasn’t their best effort.
“They just played a beautiful half of offensive basketball,” he said.
WSU led 12-5 before the Bears started raining three-pointers. Wichitan Gavin Thurman scored seven straight points to give MSU a 15-13 lead. MSU ended the half on a 15-5 run to build the 42-24 halftime lead. MSU freshman Austin Ruder made 3 of 4 three-pointers, as did Marcus Marshall.
“We were down 18, so at that point you’ve got to regroup,” WSU’s Evan Wessel said. “Obviously, down 18 it was going to take a hell of an effort. We could either come out and get embarrassed, or come out and fight and try to get back in the game.”
Simon and fellow walk-on Zach Bush heard every insult from the MSU student section, located a few feet from the Shocker bench.
“They think they’ve got this game won and they’re going absolutely nuts,” Bush said. “Coach came in the locker room at half and was really calm. We knew, with that group, we had a lot of veteran guys who could change how they were playing.”
The Shockers cut the 18-point halftime deficit to 11 with 15 minutes to play. Then Ruder made a three to start an 8-0 run that expanded the lead to 54-35 with 11:48 to play. Ken Pomeroy’s calculations gave WSU a 7-percent chance of winning.
“We cut the lead to 11, and I’m thinking we’re good,” Marshall said. “Then they blew it back up to 19. Now there’s 11-and-change left in the game and we’re down more than we were at halftime. Now all the ‘chip away every four-minute segment’ that’s out the window, too.”
The mood stayed calm. Marshall reminded them again that basketball fans around the nation wanted to see how the Shockers responded. Many of them wanted to see their suspicions about WSU’s weak credentials as a true power confirmed.
“I told them to play with unbelievable passion and energy, but be positive and stay together,” he said. “Regardless, we were going to have to play another game in three days. It worked. That calm, as opposed to ripping them, it worked to our favor.”
So did WSU’s press. The Shockers scored 11 second-half points off six turnovers. They scored 19 points at the foul line in the second half, driving to the basket and letting officials help them by stopping the clock while they scored. The Bears made 7 of 27 shots in the second half, cooling off as the Shockers expected.
“We were pressing the whole time and they became very tentative,” Marshall said. “We could press and it never cost us, because they would beat the press, and then pull it out and run clock.”
Ron Baker started the comeback with three-pointer with 11:27 to play. Baker’s three cut the lead to 10 with 9:49 to play.
The Bears led 64-60 when the improbable became unbelievable in a frantic final minute. VanVleet missed a three and Chadrack Lufile grabbed the rebound, rising above MSU’s Nathan Scheer, and missed a putback. Cleanthony Early tried to follow in Lufile’s miss with a one-handed dunk that banged off the rim to Tekele Cotton.
He passed to VanVleet, who drove into the lane and ran into Scheer. The referee immediately signaled block and the ball appeared to hit the rim and spin up, over and in. VanVleet watched the replay many times and isn’t sure how that basketball found the bottom of the net. His three-point play brought WSU within 64-63 with 47 seconds to play.
“I just threw it up and it went in somehow,” he said. “I could have traveled. It could have been a foul. That’s just how the game goes — sometimes in your favor and sometimes not.”
That play is the one the Bears remember, as well.
“That’s the biggest one that stands out to me because of how close we were and it just slipped away in front of our eyes,” Ruder said.
MSU’s Jarmar Gulley tried to drive past Wessel. Wessel walled off the lane and Gulley lost the ball out of bounds. VanVleet drove to the basket and drew a foul with eight seconds to play. He made one of two free throws and the game went to overtime, 64-all.
Everything went in VanVleet’s favor in overtime. He scored seven of WSU’s eight points, five on free throws. MSU missed their first four shots of overtime and went 2 for 9 and 1 for 5 from the line. The game ended on Early’s steal in the final seconds, WSU up 72-69.
“I got an ‘and-one’ and missed the free throw (in overtime), then Fred VanVleet getting around me on a pick and roll,” MSU center Tyler McCullough said. “That stung because we were so close. If just one of those two things had gone our way it would have been a different outcome.”
Instead, that night, in front of 10,776 fans, the Shockers added to the legacy of the unbeaten regular-season. Every great season needs a miracle to add to the richness and folklore of the saga. The Bears did their part by hitting the Shockers with a 19-point lead. The Shockers made history with their rally.
Fiery halftime speeches often take their place in epic stories. On that night, Marshall stepped aside, showed confidence in his players and let them generate their own energy.
“Him being that calm in that moment, I think it helped us compose ourselves and come back,” VanVleet said. “It was ‘All right, this guy is in our corner with us. Let’s fight back and see what we got.’”
No. 14 Wichita State at Missouri State
When: 7:05 p.m. Wednesday
Where: JQH Arena, Springfield, Mo.
Records: WSU 16-2, 6-0 MVC; MSU 8-10, 2-4
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
TV: Cox 22
No. 14 Wichita State at Missouri St.
Wichita State (16-2, 6-0): WSU has won 12 straight MVC road games, longest conference streak since Nebraska won 16 from 1912-15. Kansas holds the record with 28 from 1924-28. The Shockers lead the series with MSU 35-30 and has won eight straight, its longest streak … WSU is also trying to extend its modern-day MVC record of 24 straight regular-season conference wins … WSU coach Gregg Marshall is 90-42 in MVC games and needs one win to move into a tie with Bradley’s Joe Stowell for 10th on the conference’s career list … Carter is 17 of 27 from the field in his past two games, averaging 21.5 points and 7.0 rebounds. He leads the MVC in 40-minute production for scoring at 22.2 points and ranks second in rebounding at 11.1 … VanVleet ranks second nationally in career assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.15.
Missouri State (8-10, 2-4): The Bears are playing their third game without G Marcus Marshall, who left the team on Friday after a one-game suspension. According to the Springfield News-Leader, Marshall and coach Paul Lusk had words during a practice after Lusk removed Marshall from the starting lineup. Marshall averaged 19.5 points in 14 games, the only Bear in double figures. “It’s been difficult,” Lusk said. “I like the guys that we do have. You lose a guy that go about 20 a game, and 15 or 16 shots, and I told our guys, it’s not any one person that can make up for that. We’re going to have to get defensive stops. We’re going to have to rebound.” … F Gavin Thurman, from Wichita, scored a career-high 21 points against WSU in 2013 at JQH Arena.
RPI as of Tuesday: WSU 10, MSU 183.
All the way back
Wichita State’s 19-point rally last season at Missouri State ranks as the program’s top comeback, according to research by radio voice Mike Kennedy. The Shockers trailed the Bears 54-35 with 11:48 remaining in the game. They tied it 64-all to force overtime and won 72-69.
Other notable Shocker comebacks:
▪ On Dec. 16, WSU trailed Alabama 51-40 with 6:01 to play at Koch Arena. It outscored the visitors 13-1 to win 53-52 on Darius Carter’s dunk with 11 seconds to play.
▪ In 2013, the Shockers trailed Illinois State 67-60 with 40 seconds to play at Redbird Arena. Cleanthony Early started the rally with two free throws after a flagrant foul on Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael, who kicked WSU’s Tekele Cotton after a rebound. Demetric Williams made a three-pointer to cut the lead to 67-65. After a turnover, Early’s three-pointer with six seconds to play gave WSU a 68-67 win.
▪ The Shockers trailed Iowa 40-25 early in the second half in the 1981 NCAA Tournament at Levitt Arena. WSU responded by holding Iowa scoreless for 8:50 to tie the game. The Shockers won 60-56, helped by a technical foul on the Hawkeyes called when coach Lute Olson told Bob Hansen to call a timeout his team didn’t possess.
▪ In 1978, Final Four-bound DePaul visited Levitt Arena. The Blue Demons led 85-71 with 5:04 remaining. WSU won 95-92.
▪ Down 54-42 with 11:30 remaining, the Shockers rallied to defeat No. 10 Cincinnati 67-66 in 1969 at Levitt Arena. Guard Greg Rataj sparked the rally with eight points down the stretch.
▪ In 1968, Saint Louis led the Shockers by 15 points with around 14 minutes to play at Levitt Arena. A 20-5 run gave the Shockers a 77-72 win.
▪ Dave Stallworth scored seven straight points in the final 3:10 to give the ninth-ranked Shockers a 65-64 win over No. 1 Cincinnati in 1963. The win ended Cincinnati’s 37-game win streak.