Wichita State came to the Bahamas to learn what it can do against top competition.
It went 1-2, losing twice to nationally ranked teams, and what WSU learned created as many questions as the Battle 4 Atlantis answered.
On Friday, the Shockers from the first five games reappeared just in time to make the third-place game a thriller. No. 24 Michigan State held off a Wichita State rally to win 77-72.
WSU’s second-half performance — specifically the final 11 minutes in which it trimmed an 18-point deficit to one — will give coaches plenty to think about.
The Shockers rallied with starters Zach Brown, Rashard Kelly and Shaq Morris — their most experienced players — sitting for most of the second half. Guards Conner Frankamp and Landry Shamet played 27 minutes, with Frankamp scoreless and Shamet making 2 of 9 shots.
Morris fouled out with 2:56 to play and the starting lineup combined for 15 points on 4-of-23 shooting, which opens minds to all kind of possibilities when WSU returns home. NCAA Division II Southern Nazarene is the next opponent, which lends itself to experiments.
“I’ll have to evaluate us and evaluate my coaching and evaluate our personnel,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “If we need to press more, which was really good for us. If we need to play different guys.”
Marshall knows his team plays hard and he knows he can use depth and athletic ability to his advantage most games. What he doesn’t know is in what combinations to use that depth. Smith, for example, is the team’s lone pure point guard. His strong play on Friday opens options on how to best employ his skills with Frankamp’s shooting and Shamet’s versatility playing off the ball.
“We have to use this experience to learn and improve,” Marshall said.
WSU (5-2) shot poorly for a second straight game, making 22 of 62 shots (35.5 percent) and 5 of 22 three-pointers. Forward Darral Willis led a 57-point effort from the bench with 16 points, most coming around the basket. Smith scored 13 points, 10 in the second half, and Markis McDuffie added 10.
Smith missed a long three-pointer with the Shockers down 75-72 in the final seconds, one Marshall said came a little too quickly. Smith said the play called for him to use a ball-screen and then look for his shot or shooters in the corners.
“The game plan was to get a switch with Rauno (Nurger’s) big,” he said. “But No. 11 (Tum Tum Nairn) kept backing off me, so I saw the basket clearly and I felt I could make it. I just shot it too strong.”
Michigan State (4-3) shot 50 percent from the field and made 11 of 25 threes. Freshman Miles Bridges scored 21 points, highlighted by four threes, all in the second half, and each one timed to knock down a Shocker rally. Nairn, a Wichita Sunrise Christian Academy product playing in front of friends and family in his hometown of Nassau, handed out a career-high 12 assists.
“I’m pleased, because I think we deserved to win the game by more than that,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Wichita State is a very, very good team and the kind of team that gives us problems. Two kinds of teams give us problems — teams that are real deep, because we’re not, and teams that are real big, because we’re not.”
The Spartans grabbed the biggest lead of the game at 58-40 with 11:53 to play. Then WSU’s press started to work, in two stages. The Shockers forced five straight turnovers, but only cut the lead to 58-46. Michigan State led 66-51 when the Shockers combined pressure and scoring to make their rally.
Izzo cycled through stupid, crazy and casual as his descriptions for the his team’s passing and dribbling decisions against WSU’s press. Bridges threw a pass high over the head of a teammate. Kenny Goins missed a dunk on a lob pass. Frankamp snuck up behind Eron Harris for a steal.
“We can’t throw the ball around like that,” Izzo said. “We didn’t attack and when we did, we didn’t finish.”
The Shockers forced 10 second-half turnovers and the press activated their quickness and length.
“It gets our athleticism into the game,” Smith said.
Down 66-51 with 8:05 to play, the Shockers ripped off a 14-3 run, fueled by their fullcourt press and a zone defense. It helps when some shots go in and the Shockers did that, too, to set up the press.
“I called it desperation, not panic,” Shamet said. “Knowing that we hadn’t really played very well and still had an opportunity to win the game. So we cranked it up. It got us a couple easy baskets.”
Shamet’s three started the comeback to cut the lead to 66-55. Willis fired up the bench with a sequence in which he grabbed three offensive rebounds — two off his own misses — to score. Smith’s steal and layup cut Michigan State’s lead to 66-59. Another layup by Smith made it 66-65.
WSU cut the lead to 74-72 in the final minute on a dunk by Willis.
After a Spartans timeout, Willis pressured Bridges into a turnover. The Shockers rushed down court and McDuffie’s short jumper rolled around and off.
Cassius Winston’s foul shot gave the Spartans a 75-72 lead with 22.9 seconds to play.
The Shockers, after their initial action went nowhere, called timeout with 11.4 seconds to play. Smith’s long three bounced off the backboard too hard and the Shockers fouled with 4.7 seconds to play. Bridges made two free throws.