In a season with a lot of lineup changes, Wichita State may have found a rotation with staying power.
The Shockers routed Bradley 61-41 on Saturday at Koch Arena, using an experienced starting lineup that plays defense. In the second half, reserve Ben Smith finished off the Braves with a perfect display of three-point shooting.
The formula may change again. Or it may not. WSU’s most experienced players seem to be taking charge, starting with the final minutes of the first half in Wednesday’s win at Southern Illinois.
“The games that we start flat, it’s not the offensive end that’s a problem, it’s the defensive end,” WSU senior Gabe Blair. “This five knows that we’re going out there to make a statement on defense first. The next five, or whoever comes in, they’ve just got to keep that tempo up.”
WSU (18-4, 9-2 Missouri Valley Conference) remains alone in second place in the MVC. Last-place Bradley (6-16, 0-11) lost its 11th straight game, its worst losing streak since 1954-55. Bradley’s 41 points are its fewest in a game since a 51-37 loss at Missouri State in 1992.
The Shockers didn’t give Bradley much reason to hope. They took the lead for good midway through the first half on back-to-back three-pointers by senior Graham Hatch. An 8-2 run to finish the half put WSU up 30-18.
Bradley coach Jim Les tried to keep his undermanned team close by milking the shot clock and calling timeouts to stop WSU runs.
“We did not want to get into an up-and-down game,” he said. “We wanted to slow down and be efficient with our possessions.”
WSU’s defense took away the punch from that strategy. Bradley managed a mere eight baskets in each half, shooting 30.8-percent from the field for the game. The Shockers put Hatch and Smith on Andrew Warren, the MVC’s leading scorer at 19 a game, and held him to 16 points on 16 shots. No other Brave reached double figures. Bradley often found itself forced to take difficult shots late in the shot clock after dribbling time away.
The Shockers, most times, only needed to defend one Bradley attack on the basket.
“I liked our defense a lot,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “When you do that, and work the shot clock every time, that’s what you get. You’ve got 10 seconds, and you’ve got to manufacture a shot.”
Warren, a 6-foot-6 senior, is used to rough treatment. The Shockers rarely gave him an open shot. Its big men did a good job helping on screens to chase Warren off three-point shots. After making 4 of 8 shots in the first half, he made 1 of 8 in the second half. Hatch and Smith forced him into several off-balance attempts. WSU also kept him off the foul line — he made 3 of 4 after making 9 of 9 in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 1.
“Same as always,” Warren said. “I just needed to slow down today, pump fake and try to draw some contact.”
WSU’s offense took over in the second half. Senior J.T. Durley, after taking two shots in the first half, scored WSU’s first eight points after halftime. His jumper made it 38-24 with 15:54 to play.
A few minutes later, Smith took over by scoring 14 straight WSU points. His first three gave WSU a 43-31 lead with 12:48 to play. He made another for a 46-33 lead. After a steal by David Kyles, Smith hit again from outside the arc, 49-33. His up-and-under layup made it 51-33 and he finished with a fourth three for a 54-34 lead.
“Beast mode,” is how Durley described it.
“I didn’t know I had that many straight, really,” Smith said. “I was just feeling good and my teammates kept telling me to shoot.”
Smith led WSU with 16 points, matching his season high, on 6-of-6 shooting. Blair contributed his second double-double in three games with 10 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. Durley scored 10 points, eight in the second half.