Turning 21: Wichita State beats Drake 78-61

Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet, left, steals the ball from Drake’s Trevor Berkeley during the first half Saturday in Des Moines.
Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet, left, steals the ball from Drake’s Trevor Berkeley during the first half Saturday in Des Moines. Associated Press

Wichita State is still growing, still improving. A team that is 21-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country isn’t acting like a team with a list of accomplishments.

“We aren’t nowhere closed to a finished product,” junior Nick Wiggins said. “We can get way better, keep getting better while winning.”

Perhaps that is what last March (and April) taught the Shockers. It is never too late to make a step forward and listen to coaches. On Saturday, the fifth-ranked Shockers handled Drake 78-61 at the Knapp Center with its usual brutally efficient mix of size, power and skill.

WSU (21-0, 8-0 Missouri Valley Conference) remains one of the nation’s three unbeaten teams. Its 21-game win streak tied the 2008 Drake team for fourth-best in MVC. Drake (11-9, 2-6) lost for the sixth time in seven games.

WSU’s mental preparation for Saturday’s game started by dissecting Wednesday’s 70-55 win at Illinois State. The Shockers survived a sloppy (11 turnovers) first half and video exposed all the problems.

“That was a pretty tough film session to win a game by double digits,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.

“We wanted to come out and play hard and not start the game like we had the previous one,” WSU guard Ron Baker said. “That first half, we weren’t very pleased.”

What happened next is what pleased Marshall, and what demonstrates the Shockers understand they need to improve, regardless of the caliber of competition. Winning by double digits isn’t the main thing. Winning the right way is what gets a team deep into March.

“(Friday’s) practice was probably one of the best three or four practices we’ve had all year,” Marshall said. “I knew we were going to be ready to play. They allow you to coach them. They allow you to get better.”

WSU’s Cleanthony Early made 7 of 11 shots and three three-pointers to score 19 points in 22 minutes. Baker added 14 for the Shockers and Wiggins came off the bench to score 11. Aaron Hawley led Drake with 16 points.

The Shockers out-rebounded Drake 34-20 and outscored the smaller Bulldogs 32-10 in the lane. They scored 23 points off 13 turnovers and that thoroughness left Drake coach Ray Giacoletti thoroughly impressed.

“As far as a weakness, I’m not really sure what a weakness is,” he said. “They don’t hang their hat on just one thing. They’re going to out-rebound you. They’re going to out-tough you. They’re going to out-defend you.”

Drake’s outside shooting kept the Bulldogs close in the first half. The Shockers started to pull away late in the first half and led 37-29.

The Shockers kept their momentum rolling into the second half. They built a 50-35 lead on Darius Carter’s one-handed dunk to cap a 13-6 run to start the half.

The Bulldogs went just over seven minutes without a basket before Chris Caird made a three with 15:55 remaining in the game. The Shockers responded with Baker’s three-point play for a 46-35 lead.

WSU’s 11-0 run ended any drama, pushing a 54-44 lead to 65-44. Wiggins converted two three-point plays during the run. Early added a three and followed in a miss with a dunk.

After the game, the Shockers mingled with hundreds of fans, some from Kansas, some from Iowa, who made enough noise to make it feel a little like Koch Arena. The Shockers posed for pictures, signed autographs and enjoyed the unbeaten feeling again.

“It feels like Shocker nation,” Wiggins said. “It feels like a home atmosphere. When we scored, our crowd was louder than when they scored.”

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