Wichita State’s basketball players could play with one arm tied behind their backs and their legs in burlap sacks. But you can’t handicap this team’s spirit.
They’re ruthless and they’re hard.
When Saturday’s gut-wrenching 67-64 win over Creighton was over, guard Demetric Williams could barely walk. Center Carl Hall was beating himself up over five missed free throws down the stretch and WSU coach Gregg Marshall was trying to explain how his team won when most of the key box-score stats said it lost.
“I can’t really explain it,” Marshall said. “The numbers don’t add up when we shoot the way we shot.”
That was shooting?
The Shockers made 38 percent from the field and were 4 of 23 from the three-point line. They made just 9 of 19 free throws.
But there’s not a number that can gauge determination. And if there are constants in Marshall’s teams over the past six years, they’re defense and rebounding.
Shooting be damned.
The Shockers are an MMA fighter in what is often an artistic sport. Basketball can be beautiful, but the way WSU plays it sometimes can be harmful to the eyes.
Creighton didn’t take a bus back to Omaha; the Bluejays took EMS.
The best number on the Shockers’ stat sheet was 22, for offensive rebounds. Sometimes it didn’t matter how bad one of their shots was because somebody was going to go get the rebound.
It happened time after time and it led to a 23-5 advantage in second-chance points. Give this much to Creighton — the Bluejays are willing to give a guy a second chance.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott agreed with the assessment that nothing peeves him more than watching his team get whipped by rebounders more tenacious than his own.
“We were in good position a lot of times for those rebounds, we just have to go get them,” said McDermott, whose 12th-ranked Bluejays lost for only the second time in 18 games. “We’re not as athletically blessed as Wichita State so our technique has to be better.”
The Shockers don’t really have technique. They just see a shot go up and attack the glass like it’s encasing the Hope diamond.
No one WSU player epitomizes this team’s mindset more than sophomore guard Tekele Cotton, who made exactly none of his 10 shots.
But Cotton played 32 minutes and you know why? It’s because he took his turn covering Creighton superstar Doug McDermott and because, at 6-foot-2, he stormed the boards for eight rebounds, three on the offensive glass.
Buoyed by a hard-charging and crazed sellout crowd, most of whom were dressed in black and seeing red, the Shockers did exactly what Creighton expected.
“This is as good as it gets for a college basketball atmosphere,” said Doug McDermott, who had a game-high 25 points but did not score in the final two minutes. “Wichita fans bring it every night. It’s tough to come in here and win. And it’s always been one of my favorite games to play in.”
The Shockers used a number of players to attempt to make it difficult for McDermott. In the end, though, it was a pair of missed three-pointers by Creighton’s Ethan Wragge that preserved the win.
Wragge, a 46 percent three-point shooter, had an open look from the baseline off an in-bounds play with just less than 10 seconds to play. Then, after two missed free throws by the Shockers’ Hall, Wragge launched a shot from three feet beyond the key that hit the back of the rim as the final buzzer sounded.
Nobody was happier to see those shots go awry than Hall, who missed a month with a hand injury before returning Wednesday night against Illinois State. Hall was rusty in that one and attempted only two shots.
Against Creighton, the 6-8 Hall was more Iron Man than Rust Man. He scored eight points in the game’s first 6:20 and finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
But the only numbers that mattered to him were 1 for 6 — his free-throw success rate.
Hall wanted to accept praise for his overall performance, but he couldn’t.
“I got to make free throws, man,” he said. “I’m sick about them.”
But you had 17 points, 13 rebounds and played excellent defense.
“I’m still sick,” he said. “I can’t do that at the line. I can’t miss free throws down the stretch like that. It’s all I’m thinking about. Good players make those down the stretch. If we lost that, man, I would have been sick.”
Hall did make one free throw late, and it gave the Shockers a 65-63 lead with 48 seconds left. Point guard Malcolm Armstead picked McDermott clean on the defensive end, then made two important free throws with 15 seconds left. And Williams, with a bum left knee, scored eight of his 10 points in the second half, all of them on daredevil-ish drives to the basket.
“I just know I’ve been here for four years,” said a gimpy Williams, attempting to describe how old he felt in the aftermath of Saturday’s battle. “Everybody on this team buys in defensively. We know sometimes we’re going to struggle shooting the ball. But you can control how hard you play, how hard you defend.”
Was Saturday’s win pretty? No, not even close.
But it was pleasing for the Shockers, who were tougher than their Creighton counterparts.