Cleanthony Early likes everything about Redbird Arena, even the fans who give him a hard time and hold up signs mocking him, his coach and his school.
It is a fun place to play when you’re winning, and Early completed a two-year mission to burn down the place with his outside shooting. No. 5 Wichita State handled Illinois State 70-55 on Wednesday night at nearly-packed Redbird Arena to remain one of the nation’s three unbeaten teams (20-0).
Early scored 23 points, making 6 of 9 three-pointers, and grabbed 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season. Last season, he completed WSU’s eight-points-in-40-seconds comeback with a game-winning three with 4.8 seconds remaining and the Shockers won 68-67. Early, named one of 25 players on the Wooden Award’s midseason watch list on Wednesday, gave a player-of-the-year performance in his return.
“The environment is crazy,” Early said. “I like the crowd. I like how intense they are. With what we did last year, it makes this year a little bit better. We had to get the win.”
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The Shockers own the Missouri Valley Conference’s second-best season-opening streak behind the 1979 Indiana State team that went 33-0 before losing in the NCAA title game. WSU is the 11th team nationally in the past 10 years to start 20-0. It is 7-0 in the MVC, its best conference start since the 1964-65 team went 8-0.
The Shockers defeated Illinois State (11-8, 4-3) for the fourth straight time at Redbird Arena. The Redbirds went 1 for 25 from three-point range. Daishon Knight led Illinois State with 12 points.
“They shot it great, better than they usually do, and we didn’t,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. “We’re not going to beat many teams, especially a team like that, going 1 of 25 from three.”
After a tense 40 minutes, the Shockers joked it up after the game while discussing the history of the MVC.
“I’m assuming it was Larry Bird (on that Indiana State team),” WSU guard Ron Baker said.
“You guys had similar mustaches,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
“Don’t compare me to him,” Baker replied.
Nobody will, but Bird would appreciate how the Shockers turned a bad first half into a routine victory.
WSU committed 11 turnovers in the first half, more than its season average for a game, and trailed 28-25. Illinois State’s trapping and pressure from its zone forced WSU into awkward spots and the Shockers forced passes and dribbled into traffic. They paid a price for their hurry, giving up eight points after those turnovers.
“Everything that was going on in the first half was just indicative of them playing harder and tougher and smarter than we did,” Marshall said.
The second half looked completely different.
WSU committed two turnovers and made 6 of 14 three-pointers to quiet the crowd. Early made 3 of 5 in the second half, most of them over smaller defenders. The Shockers put Baker in the middle of the floor against Illinois State’s zone pressure and allowed Early to shoot from the wing.
“He hit his first couple and then he started asking for it a little bit more,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “We were just trying to find him in good spots. He was able to rise up and shoot over them.”
The Shockers opened the second half with a 10-1 run to go up 35-29 on Baker’s corner three.
A three-point play by VanVleet made it 41-33. During the play, Illinois State’s Tony Wills was assessed a flagrant foul for hitting Baker with a forearm to the chin. Baker’s foul shots made it 43-33. WSU started the half making 6 of 11 shots and 3 of 5 threes.
“Coach challenged us at halftime,” VanVleet said. “We were getting outplayed by their guards and we took it personal and got back to the way we want to play.”
Tekele Cotton added to the second-half highlights when he grabbed a long rebound, after aggressively contesting a three, and hustled down court. He fed Darius Carter on the run for a layup and a 47-34 lead.
Cotton topped that with a one-handed dunk, over 6-foot-9 John Jones, for a 60-47 lead. Even the Redbird Arena student section appreciated that jam, some of them covering their eyes in sympathy for Jones. The Shocker bench, of course, reacted more enthusiastically. The dunk dominated the conversation in the locker room after the game, with almost every player watching and re-watching the video on their smartphones.
Redbird Arena has turned into WSU’s highlight factory the past two seasons.