EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Wichita State knew road victories weren’t always going to be easy.
Evansville figured to be a likely place to test that theory. The Aces owned a five-game win streak at Roberts Stadium and usually give the Shockers fits in this building.
WSU’s streak of double-digit road victories ended at seven. Its road winning streak moved to eight with Tuesday’s 80-74 win over Evansville, and now the Shockers know they can execute — and rebound — with the pressure on.
“When we go to the Valley Tournament, we don’t think we’re going to blow out every team,” WSU junior Ben Smith said. “We had great composure and tried to play tough and finish.”
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The Shockers (22-5, 13-3 Missouri Valley Conference) remain tied for first with Missouri State, a 60-51 winner over Drake. Evansville (14-12, 8-8) lost for the first time at home since Jan. 9 and allowed the 80 points at home for the first time this season.
WSU won at Roberts Stadium for the first time since 2007 — and the final time. Evansville is moving to a downtown arena next season.
“This has been a tough place for us to play over the years,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “This was a big game for both teams. We’re trying to keep our postseason (NCAA) at-large aspirations alive.”
Unlike WSU’s previous seven MVC road games, the Shockers had to sweat late in the game. Evansville tied it 68-all with 4:56 remaining. The Shockers needed a good possession, and they came up with three straight.
Gabe Blair grabbed a miss by Joe Ragland and drew a foul. His two free throws gave WSU a 70-68 lead with 4:34 to play. After an Evansville miss, Ragland drove into the lane, deftly avoiding a charging foul, and scored for a 72-68 lead. WSU’s Garrett Stutz blocked a shot and rebounded, leading to a basket by Smith and a six-point lead with 2:56 to play.
WSU didn’t execute flawlessly in crunch time. Two turnovers gave the Aces a chance, but they missed six of seven shots after WSU went ahead 74-68. After getting to the foul line all game, they settled for long jumpers in the final minutes.
“We had a couple empty possessions late in the game where we didn’t move the ball like we need to,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said.
The Shockers wrapped up the game at the line, making four of six free throws in the final 54.3 seconds _ all while the Aces tossed up bricks.
While it wasn’t always pretty, the Shockers won their first close game since beating LSU 70-69 and Tulsa 82-79 in late December. Ragland, in his second game as the starting point guard, made the right decisions in his first test in crunch time.
“Even though we haven’t had too many games like this, we practice like this all the time,” Ragland said. “We’re ready for it. It was very big, with me as the point guard, that I made sure everybody got where they needed to be and made sure that we executed.”
Ragland wasn’t alone. Demetric Williams and Toure Murry played most of the final minutes.
“We had three point guards out there in crunch time,” Ragland said. “We made sure we made solid plays to win the game.”
The big men did plenty to help.
WSU outrebounded Evansville 46-22 and scored 19 points off follow shots. Smith grabbed five offensive rebounds on his way to a team-high 17 points. Stutz scored 12 points and had four offensive rebounds. J.T. Durley led the Shockers with 11 rebounds.
The disparity surprised Marshall.
“I had no idea it was like that,” he said. “That’s a huge difference. They’re a tough team, and I guess the ball bounced our way.”