Wichita State and Indiana State haven't played many important basketball games over the years. More often than not, at least one or the other has been in the bottom half of the Missouri Valley Conference race and their matchups have elicited a lot of yawns.
Such was the case again Saturday night at Koch Arena. Lots of yawns, but not for the reason you'd expect. The yawns came because if was so darn late — it took three overtimes and a Lifetime Network movie amount of drama for the Shockers to beat the Sycamores 93-83. It was a game that left its combatants moving slowly — too tired to celebrate and too spent to cry.
Only three times since Indiana State joined the Valley in 1977 have the Shockers and Sycamores both finished in the top half of the conference standings.
But going into Saturday night's marathon, the teams were a combined 13-3 in the Valley, with Indiana State in a first-place tie with Missouri State.
Stakes were high. And protecting its home court has been a problem lately for the Shockers, like Wells Fargo protecting a stagecoach loaded with gold in the Old West.
Only this time, the outlaws didn't quite get away. Almost, but not quite.
Wichita State led by eight at halftime, built its advantage to 10 with the first basket of the second half, then needed a late basket by J.T. Durley to get the game to overtime.
We were just getting started.
The first overtime was all Shockers — for 2 1/2 minutes. They scored the first eight points of the extra period, then went stale as Indiana State stormed back, mostly at the free-throw line, to further delay the post-game plans of a sellout crowd of 10,506, none of whom took a step toward an exit.
The second overtime looked to belong to Indiana State, which scored six of the first eight points to take a 79-75 lead.
But then a Wichita State player who wears No. 20 and had been on the floor a lot but had done little on the offensive end made one of the biggest shots of the game.
Ben Smith, a junior forward, made his first start Saturday night and within five minutes the Indiana State player he was guarding, Aaron Carter, scored five points. Since Smith was in the lineup in place of a defensive specialist, Graham Hatch, he knew he better get into lock-down mode if he was going to stay on the floor.
An outstanding shooter, he didn't even look for much on the offensive end. His mindset was all about defense.
But with 2:32 remaining in the second overtime and the Shockers down four, Smith found himself with an open three-pointer on the baseline, in front of the WSU bench. Even though his only shot previously in the game was way off the mark, Smith didn't flinch. The shot swished, and without it, there's no third overtime.
Finally, the third overtime released the tension. The Shockers broke free and it started with another three-pointer from Smith, this one from the top of the key, that gave WSU an 86-83 lead with 1:57 to play.
Smith posted himself atop the key when he saw Durley backing his defender up in the paint. When the double-team arrived on Durley, he kicked the ball to an open Smith, drained from a season-high in minutes and the emotion of such a back-and-forth struggle.
But this was the shot he loves. There wasn't an Indiana State defender close. He didn't hesitate.
"That shot was huge,'' WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "Ben played a lot of minutes but doesn't do much constructive on offense. He didn't turn it over, at least. He got a piece of a shot or two. But of our 3-of-23 three-point shooting, he's 2 of 3. I don't even want to think of what taking those shots away because that would be a cool 1 for 20 for 5 percent. A frigid 5 percent.''
The game checked in at just a little under three hours and had 53 fouls and 62 free throws. The teams were a collective 9 of 46 from three-point range and right around 40 percent overall.
It was a battle of attrition; the biggest regret Indiana State coach Greg Lansing had was that he didn't substitute more. Three Sycamores — Carter, Carl Richard and impressive freshman guard Jake Odum — played at least 42 of the 55 minutes.
The biggest advantage the Shockers have is depth and Marshall went to the well often. He went with a strange starting lineup of Smith, David Kyles, Demetric Williams, Garrett Stutz and Gabe Blair. Regular starters Durley, Hatch, Toure Murry and Aaron Ellis started the game on the bench.
But that stuff just doesn't matter for the Shockers. When it was over — when it was finally over — the minutes among the 10 Shockers who played were pretty evenly dispersed. And when it mattered most, the right guys were out there.
Six players from both teams scored in double figures as the Sycamores and Shockers played the most memorable game in their series history.
It was the first triple-overtime game in the history of Koch Arena, which dates back 56 years. It was a game for the ages. It was a game that aged everyone involved.