Wichita State made this one tougher than it needed to be in several ways.
The Shockers missed all kind of shots, including layups and a dunk. Foul trouble kept them from using their size advantage. WSU coach Gregg Marshall complained about sweat puddling in the lane far too long before ball boys used their mops to dry up the danger area.
Everybody seemed ready to fast-forward past Wednesday’s ugliness to get to Saturday’s game at No. 18 Northern Iowa.
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WSU, after much frustration, did just that to defeat Loyola 58-47 on Wednesday at Koch Arena. Guard Fred VanVleet carried the under-performing offense with a career-high 27 points, 16 in the first half.
“He looked like the one guy, for sure, from the tip who was ready to play,” Marshall said. “Thank goodness. That is one thing I did tell them: If you play like this on Saturday, you’re going to lose.”
WSU (19-2, 9-0 Missouri Valley Conference) won its 27th straight regular-season conference game, a modern record, and extended its record home win streak to 28. Loyola (13-8, 3-6) lost its fourth straight game. It played its third straight game without sophomore guard Milton Doyle, out for 3-to-4 weeks with a sprained right ankle.
With that, the Shockers can look ahead to two days of practice, trying to prepare for an equally fierce defense, before it plays No. 18 Northern Iowa at the McLeod Center. It is the first meeting of ranked MVC teams since 1982.
The Shockers missed 16 of their first 22 shots and 20 of 32 in the first half. Foul trouble limited their big men to supporting roles. Tekele Cotton, usually reserved a spot on ESPN’s highlights, missed a dunk. WSU, however, is too experienced and too calm to get frustrated. Most important, it is too experienced to let missed shots sap its defensive energy.
“The rhythm just wasn’t flowing for us,” VanVleet said. “You’ve got to take the good and the bad, and tonight we had more bad than good offensively. I still think we did a good job defensively and rebounding. That’s going to carry us most nights.”
VanVleet carried the offense to top his previous high by five points. He made 10 of 16 shots and 4 of 7 threes.
“I can be that aggressive every game if I chose to do so,” he said. “Tonight, it worked out. I just take the onus to be the distributor most nights, and get other guys involved. I took a little more onus to be aggressive and I was able to find some good opportunities.”
WSU’s Ron Baker added 16 points, 14 in the second half. WSU made 5 of 9 threes in the second half and 8 of 18 for the game. After shooting 37.5 percent in the first half, WSU finished 22 of 54 for 40.7 percent.
Devon Turk led the Ramblers with nine points. The Ramblers made 8 of 25 shots in the second half and committed eight second-half turnovers. Loyola coach Porter Moser didn’t mind a patient tempo, but his team missed Doyle’s ability to create shots and make good passes to teammates. WSU’s defense ran down the shot clock and often forced the Ramblers into tough, hurried shots.
“Their guards, they just clamp on you,” Moser said. “They take you out of it.”
The Shockers led 35-25 early in the second half, but surrendered four points to let the Ramblers back in the game. WSU finally got its break going to pull away again. Tekele Cotton dunked on a break for a 38-30 lead. After Shaq Morris stood his ground and forced Montel James to miss a shot in the lane, Cotton rebounded and pushed the ball to find VanVleet for a layup and a 40-30 lead.
Baker’s three-pointer made it 44-30, capping a 9-0 run, and forcing a Loyola timeout. VanVleet’s three answered one by the Ramblers to give WSU a 49-36 lead. Seconds later, Baker answered again to make it 52-39. Throw in VanVleet’s buzzer-beater at the end of the first half and Moser saw the Shocker guards beat back his momentum at every turn.
“Timely shots by Baker and VanVleet,” Moser said. “It’s the same script. That’s what great players do.”
WSU’s numbers didn’t add up during an ugly first half. The Shockers took 32 shots to Loyola’s 15, out-rebounded the Ramblers 18-11 and forced eight turnovers. WSU grabbed 11 offensive rebounds and committed three turnovers. That hefty edge in possessions normally produces a big edge on the scoreboard. WSU missed 20 of those shots and struggled with the Ramblers all half. VanVleet’s three-pointer at the buzzer gave the Shockers a 29-23 lead, matching its biggest edge.