Since 2014, Wichita State led the Missouri Valley Conference every day, maintaining a hold on first place rarely challenged.
On Saturday, the Shockers departed Redbird Arena in second place in the MVC, their first drop since they finished second in 2013.
Illinois State is the new MVC leader, alone in first place for the first time since the 1997-98 season, after a 76-62 win over Wichita State.
The Redbirds, fueled by a rangy 2-3 zone defense and three-point shooting closed the game on a 20-9 run after WSU rallied within three points. In the final seconds, students chanted “We’re No. 1” and nobody else in the Valley, other than Koch Arena fans, chanted that with any conviction since Creighton in 2013.
“We will need to figure out how to score the ball and hold them under 76 points,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “That doesn’t travel very well.”
Darral Willis and Landry Shamet both scored 14 points for WSU (15-4, 5-1 MVC). The Shockers shot 35 percent from the field and made 7 of 21 three-pointers. They grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, but scored only 15 second-chance points.
MiKyle McIntosh led Illinois State (14-4, 6-0) with 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting. The Redbirds made 10 of 22 threes and shot 54.2 percent for the game, a season-high by a WSU opponent. In the second half, they made 13 of 21 shots to answer every Wichita State rally.
With 12 games remaining in the MVC schedule, nobody conceded the title to Illinois State. The Redbirds seemed mindful of the challenges awaiting, including a Feb. 4 rematch at Koch Arena.
“There’s no message that needs to be taken from it,” McIntosh said. “We just came out here and played basketball.”
Saturday’s loss gave the Shockers much to think about. They struggled against Illinois State’s zone defense, finding intermittent success getting the ball into the lane, but nothing consistent. WSU’s defense, plagued by breakdowns and poor reactions, surrendered way too many open shots. The Shockers are an excellent offensive team. It needs to learn how to turn up the defense when shots aren’t falling.
“Fifty-four percent shooting, that’s terrible,” WSU guard Landy Shamet said. “We didn’t defend at all. You can’t rely on offense in the Valley. Everybody knows you.”
Some of WSU’s defensive decisions mystified Marshall and the mistakes came at crucial times. Illinois State’s Keyshawn Evans got loose late in the first half for two three-pointers. Phil Fayne snuck behind the defense late in the game for a dunk. In other situations, Redbirds guard Paris Lee penetrated and drew the defense before finding an open teammates.
“We would just leave guys,” Marshall said. “And they would find a soft spot and knock it down.”
Illinois State’s height and quickness frustrated the Shockers in both their man and zone defenses. Eight first-half turnovers, many of them caused by weak passes or dribbling into traffic, helped bury the Shockers under a nine-point deficit. The Redbirds surrendered few easy shots, blocking eight and altering many others.
“A couple of them, it seemed like they didn’t even have to jump,” Marshall said. “They blocked them with their elbow.”
The Redbirds led most of the game, building it to nine in the first half and 10 three times in the second half before its final surge.
A 9-2 run gave WSU new life and cut the lead to 56-53. Illinois State wasted no time pushing it back out to 10 points with a flurry of three-pointers.
Lee started the run with a three, taking advantage when his screener held up WSU’s Conner Frankamp, for a 59-53 lead. After a WSU miss, Hawkins made a three from the top of the key.
McIntosh’s three from the wing gave the Redbirds a 65-55 lead with 3:53 remaining.
Neither team scored again for almost two minutes, which worked for the Redbirds. Two foul shots by McIntosh with 2 minutes to play made it 67-55. After a traveling call on Conner Frankamp, the student section chanted “This is our house.”
Markis McDuffie, who played seven minutes in the first half saddled with two fouls, sparked WSU after halftime. He banked in a three to open the scoring. He followed in his own miss and sank a long three late in the shot clock to cut the lead to 37-35.
A three by Zach Brown pulled the Shockers within 43-42. Three empty possessions — two bad misses and a turnover — helped Illinois State extend its lead to 47-42.
More bad possessions followed, followed by Redbirds baskets. Fayne got away from Willis for a dunk. D.J. Clayton scored on a runner. Hawkins got open for a three in the corner for a 54-44 lead and forced WSU to call timeout with 9:10 to play.
Wichita State trailed 11-5 when its big lineup battered the Redbirds. Shaq Morris scored twice and Willis twice to help it take a 17-16 lead. A Frankamp three, his second of the half, gave WSU a 20-18 lead. After Rauno Nurger scored on a hook for a 24-22 lead, Redbird coaches had seen enough.
Illinois State switched to a 2-3 zone defense that took away inside scoring and changed the momentum. WSU turned the ball over on its first try against the zone and missed its next three shots.
“They’re big and athletic,” McDuffie said. “We’ve just got to find the seams, find the gaps and operate from there.”
The Redbirds went up 26-24 on a driving basket by D.J. Clayton, starting a 12-3 run to close the half. Evans made two three-pointers during the run and Illinois State took a 36-27 halftime lead.
WSU committed eight first-half turnovers, several trying to dribble into traffic. Defenders closed on the dribblers and knocked the ball away or forced difficult shots.
Willis made 5 of 8 shots and led WSU with 10 first-half points. Frankamp added six. Shocker starters, other than Willis, went 0 for 9 from the field.
The Shockers shot 34.5 percent from the field, going 1 for its final 11 shots after making 9 of its first 18.
The Redbirds made 13 of 27 shots, 6 of 15 from three-point range.