Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early grabs the spotlight with his athletic ability, his size and the total confidence he possesses in his ability to score.
He is on a hot streak because he is paying more attention to the fundamentals of shooting and it shows. Early scored 23 points in No. 4 WSU’s 57-45 win over Loyola on Tuesday night at Koch Arena.
In an unforeseen development, the Shockers needed them.
“We need somebody to make some shots and he’s the guy right now,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
WSU (22-0, 9-0 Missouri Valley Conference) extended its school-record win streak and passed the 1964-65 team for the program’s best MVC start. Loyola (8-13, 3-6) made its first Koch Arena appearance as a conference rival and gave the Shockers more trouble than expected with a scrappy second half.
Early rose above the muddled 20 minutes to add a third game to his hot streak. He made 7 of 14 shots and 4 of 9 three-pointers to bring his three-game accuracy to 22 of 38 (57.8 percent) and 13 of 22 (59 percent) from three-point range. On WSU’s recent two-game road trip, he averaged 21 points and 8.5 rebounds.
Milton Doyle led Loyola with 16 points. WSU out-rebounded Loyola 44-28 and held the Ramblers to 3-of-16 shooting from three-point range.
Early’s shots almost uniformly look good these days, well chosen within the offense and delivered with a consistent form and a pleasing arch before splashing through the net. He is more focused on repeating his form correctly than earlier in the season.
“Way more,” he said. “Just locking in. High release. Soft touch. Nice base. Square shoulders.”
Early is averaging 16.8 points in nine MVC games and making 42.3 percent of his three-pointers, up from 27.4 percent in non-conference play.
“He’s found his stroke from three-ball,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “I just want to get it to him in good spots. They had a hard time matching up with him. Their (power forward) is smaller and their big guys are a little bit slower.”
The Shockers needed Early because nobody else reached double figures. They shot 36.5 percent for the game, 26.6 percent in the ugly second half. A team that has almost uniformly been good with a lead didn’t finish strong in the second half, giving the postgame a bitter feel.
“The second half definitely was not pretty,” guard Ron Baker said.
Marshall said Wednesday’s light practice would be considerably more demanding after the sloppy second half. He refused to use last week’s road trip and a short turnaround after Saturday’s game at Drake as an excuse. Loyola, he pointed out, played Saturday and had to travel Monday. A flight cancellation from Chicago forced the Ramblers to fly to Kansas City and bus to Wichita.
“Painful second half,” he said. “They continued to fight and made it a ballgame. I don’t recall really good basketball on our part.”
WSU led by as many as 22 in the second half. Things got sloppy in the final seven minutes and the Ramblers cut WSU’s lead to 52-43 with 2:27 to play. The Shockers missed 19 of their first 23 shots in the second half, allowing Loyola to crawl, slowly, back into the game.
“You get down 18, 19, you can go two ways with a young team,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “We had two roads we could have picked. We could have picked to lay down and die. Or you can compete.”
Loyola’s rally never gained enough steam to really threaten the Shockers. They made three free throws and Darius Carter threw down a two-handed dunk to stop Loyola’s late run and lead 57-43.
The second half started in more promising fashion. Three-pointers by Baker and Early gave WSU a 42-20 lead. Early made another three to go up 46-29 with 12:44 to play. The Shockers didn’t make another basket until Baker’s layup with 5:30 to play.
Wichita State had little trouble getting good shots and scoring in the first half. It made 13 of 26 shots and 4 of 8 three-pointers. It outscored the Ramblers 16-6 in the lane and out-rebounded them 21-12 and led 36-18 at halftime.
“We just simply got pummeled in a 10-minute stretch in the first half,” Moser said.