ST. CHARLES, Mo. — When Alie Decker releases a shot in practice, she does so each time believing there are ramifications.
This shot could provide the momentum swing. This shot could be the difference. This shot could win the game. When every shot matters like it does to her coach, Jody Adams, Decker is forced to lock in and perform.
So when Decker pump-faked, dribbled in and swished a 16-foot jumper on Saturday to help send Wichita State to its second consecutive Missouri Valley Conference Tournament final, it was no different than when she executed the same move in a practice gym some 440 miles away back in August.
Not every team practices with that type of intensity. Then again, not every team has results like Wichita State (25-6), which defeated Illinois State 66-50 and will play fifth-seeded Drake for the MVC title.
“Our coach prepares us that every moment should be that moment,” Decker said. “Every shot we take in practice or a game is that big moment. Our coaches really prepare us for it, so we expect to make it when it comes.”
It’s how the Shockers survived sub-par offensive outings from their two best scorers, Alex Harden and Jamillah Bonner, who combined to shoot 9 of 30 from the field and commit five turnovers.
It’s why role players were capable of carrying WSU, as Kelsey Jacobs (8 points, 7 rebounds), Michaela Dapprich (12 points), and Decker (9 points, 7 rebounds) were the team’s best player at different stretches.
The trio entered Saturday’s game shooting a combined 42.9 percent. Against Illinois State, they made 14 of their 24 shots for 58.3 percent.
“It’s the way our environment is built,” Adams said. “Every shot is a big shot. We’re prepared to knock it down.”
When Wichita State became lax and allowed its 51-36 lead with 12:21 remaining to be trimmed to four points with five minutes left, it wasn’t Bonner or Harden that rescued the Shockers like they have so many times this season.
It was Dapprich, who connected on a 15-foot jumper, and Decker, whose pump-fake and jump shot was the knockout punch, putting the pesky Redbirds in a 10-point hole in a span of three possessions.
WSU concluded the game on a 12-0 run.
“I thought my team did the tough things well today,” Adams said. “They didn’t let little things deflate them, three ball not going down or a missed shot at the rim. They stuck to our defensive philosophy.”
While that works as a blanket statement for the team, it was apparent that Adams had Harden in mind when speaking.
Harden has thrived on efficiency all season, yet her typical high-percentage shots close to the basket weren’t falling. She missed 11 of her first 16 shots and finished with more turnovers (3) than assists (2).
“She draws 10 eyes every time she makes a move,” Adams said. “It’s not four or six, it’s 10. She has five people around her every time she takes a shot.”
But Harden refused to allow her offensive troubles to creep into what she does best, defense. She proved why she is the two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year, finishing with five steals and two blocks. Not to mention locking up Illinois State’s Chloe Nelson, who made 1 of 9 after exploding for 25 in ISU’s upset over Northern Iowa on Friday.
Now the Shockers are a game away from returning to the NCAA Tournament.
They weren’t overconfident when they were on a 20-game winning streak, and they weren’t concerned when they lost four of five games.
They were focused on this moment. And now that it’s here, the Shockers are ready.
“These kids play in a tough system and it takes a tough kid to do what we do,” Adams said. “Right now we’re doing the tough things.”
ILLINOIS STATE (10-20): Nelson 1-9 3-4 5, Smith 3-8 6-6 14, Foley 5-7 0-0 12, Winge 2-8 0-0 4, Stewart 2-4 0-0 4, Crump 2-3 0-2 4, Hall 0-2 1-4 1, Bess 1-1 0-0 2, Gebhardt 2-3 0-0 4, Freeman 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 18-47 10-16 50.
WICHITA STATE (25-6): Jacobs 4-6 0-0 8, Price 5-8 3-4 13, Mi. Dapprich 6-9 0-0 12, Bonner 2-12 3-5 7, Harden 7-18 1-1 15, Decker 4-9 0-0 9, Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Preston 1-1 0-0 2, Chapel 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-63 7-10 66.
Halftime — Wichita St. 32, Illinois St. 29. Three-point shooting — ISU 4-12 (Foley 2-2, Smith 2-4, Nelson 0-2, Winge 0-2, Freeman 0-2), WSU 1-8 (Decker 1-4, Bonner 0-1, Mi. Dapprich 0-3). Rebounds — ISU 30 (Nelson, Foley 5), WSU 36 (Jacobs, Decker 7). Assists — ISU 9 (Nelson, Smith 3), WSU 13 (Bonner 4). Fouls — ISU 13, WSU 15.