Key statistics: Utah shot 47.1 percent, best of any Shocker opponent this season. WSU guard Fred VanVleet took a career-high 19 shots and made five. He took a career-high 10 three-point attempts and made two.
Records: WSU 4-1, Utah 6-1
How the game turned: Many times, many ways. WSU led 10-0. It trailed by 11 points with 5:19 to play and by four with 2:24 to play in overtime. WSU shot 2 for 7 in overtime and VanVleet missed the front end of a one-and-one with WSU down 69-68 with eight seconds to play and Evan Wessel missed a follow shot. WSU played the final 2:24 and all of overtime without center Darius Carter, who fouled out. Carter scored 10 points in 17 minutes and WSU missed him badly when he sat out.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: Utah’s big men enjoyed a size advantage and took advantage. Freshman Jakob Poeltl burned the Shockers on a pick-and-roll baskets in the first half. He scored 12 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, four on the offensive glass. Backup Dallin Bachynski played only nine minutes, but contributed a key three-point play in the second half that drew a third foul on Carter. Bachynski scored three points and totaled four rebounds, three offensive.
Stat that might surprise you: Tulsa made 8 of 16 threes in Saturday’s loss to WSU, so in two games the Shockers are allowing opponents to make 17 of 37 threes (45.9 percent). Utah entered the game shooting 44.6 percent behind the arc, largely against weak competition at home. The Utes maintained by making 9 of 21 (42.9 percent) against WSU.
Next up: vs. Saint Louis, 5 p.m. Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena (Cox 22)
Take note: WSU will practice after a loss for the first time since it lost to Creighton in the 2013 MVC Tournament. As VanVleet often said last season, as the Shockers won 35 straight games, the team never had to learn from losing. When the Shockers regroup, there will be plenty to learn from after their first regular-season loss since March 2, 2013, also to Creighton.
“It’s going to be a little tough,” Wessel said. “We’re going to have to stomach this one and watch the film and see what we can learn from it. We’re going to have to get right back to work to see what we can do to start another streak.”
For the past two seasons, most of the scheduling talk revolves around playing good teams to build a good RPI. Playing good teams also exposes weaknesses and gives coaches teaching points. Playing Utah on the road should be a good learning experience for WSU’s newcomers.
“It will depend on how we bounce back and play from here on,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “I’ll be able to tell you that after we play Saturday and then play the next game.”
Five games is too early to panic about a statistical trend, but 10 is not and so we’ll see where these next five games take VanVleet. Last season, I think defenses knew he was a key scorer, but they also had to account for Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker with good defenders.
This season, there is no Early and his gravitational pull on defenses to allow VanVleet (and others) to get open. VanVleet is shooting 37.1 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from three-point range. He is a career 44 percent shooter, 39 percent from behind the arc and those numbers improved as a sophomore. He has taken 10 or more shots in four straight games after averaging 7.7 last season.
“I thought he had some pretty good looks,” Marshall said. “He’s just got to knock them down. I don’t know — 19 shots may be a little too many for him. If he makes the free throws there at the end, we’re up one and trying to get a stop to win the game.”
VanVleet had two turnovers, so his careful stewardship of the ball continued, but both were uncharacteristic for him. A Utah defender stole the ball from him on a drive in the first half. In the second half, he traveled while trying to set up a shot. For a player who usually controls the pace so completely, both plays stood out.
Utah sees this as season-defining victory, which reinforces the certainty that WSU will get everybody’s best shot on the road.
“This is huge for us and huge for our program,” Utah guard Delon Wright said. “This is the type of game we have always lost in the past and this time we found a way to get it done.”
Guard Brandon Taylor said, “It's a surreal feeling to see the way this program has turned around a complete 180. I was so hyped out there.”
So, it’s important to note the Shockers almost ruined the party with a 11-2 run to end regulation. They trailed 58-49 with 3:23 to play. VanVleet scored five straight points. Cotton made a three and a steal that led to a three by VanVleet for a 60-58 lead with 37 seconds to play. It looked as WSU’s resolve would be rewarded with a comeback win.
We knew WSU’s newcomers would experience growing pains, especially on the road, and that happened Wednesday. The bench contributed 10 points, three in the second half. Ria’n Holland made two three-pointers and Rashard Kelly grabbed four rebounds and scored four points. It is glaring that WSU’s juco transfers contributed little, leaving Marshall to rely on freshmen off the bench. Bush Wamukota and Tevin Glass may contribute more later this season, but so far their adjustment to NCAA basketball has not been as quick as past transfers.
The Huntsman Center is an excellent basketball venue and the 14,319 fans made plenty of noise. I would rank it behind Utah State and San Diego State, places WSU lost games in recent seasons, for an intimidating atmosphere. When I travel to power-five conference schools, there is always an expectation of luxury awaiting. Instead, the Shockers dressed in a tiny room with no lockers and few showers. Several had to scamper across a hallway in a towel to another locker room to shower. One member of the traveling party asked, “Do you make UCLA dress in here?”