It took more than 15 painful minutes for Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall to find the right lineup.
Once he got the right players on the court, they showed the way and the rest of the Shockers eventually followed. Defense and experience with Zach Brown, Rashard Kelly and Rauno Nurger. Basketball I.Q. and shooting with Landry Shamet and Austin Reaves.
It took all of that and more to escape with an 82-65 victory over Evansville on Tuesday night at Ford Center.
“Defense and energy,” Kelly said. “All you’ve got to know about Evansville is that it’s constant for 40 minutes. We were real sluggish. It just wasn’t us.”
Wichita State (16-4, 6-1 Missouri Valley Conference) defeated the Aces for the eighth straight time and the fourth at Ford Center.
Center Shaq Morris, who played well in the first half before sitting with two fouls, returned to the starting lineup. He matched his career-high with 17 points and grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds for his first double-double. Conner Frankamp, also back in the starting lineup, added 14 points, nine coming on threes in the second half. He went 4 for 4 from three-point range.
Evansville (10-10, 1-6) lost its fifth straight game. Jaylon Brown scored 28 for the Aces and Ryan Taylor chipped in 17. Nobody else scored more than four points or took more than four shots.
Evansville got the game it wanted – slow, physical and ugly. The Aces knew running with Wichita State meant bad things. That style frustrated the Shockers into the second half. Once they broke free of the Aces, they kept going all the way to a 52-point second half in which they didn’t commit a turnover and made 18 of 27 shots and 8 of 12 threes.
“We didn’t maintain what we were doing,” Brown said of the first half. “Turnovers. Not guarding.”
It started with Brown, Kelly, Reaves, Nurger and Shamet in the final four minutes of the first half. They handled Evanville’s web of screens, backcuts and curls better than previous groups. And they made a few shots.
“They came in and played the way we’re supposed to play, with energy and toughness,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “What we talked about the last two days. From that point forward, we played some really good basketball.”
Enough that those first 15 minutes seem like an aberration. The Shockers, who stayed on the road to avoid icy weather in Wichita, played sluggishly for the most of the first half. Perhaps three nights in a hotel room took the edge off WSU’s focus. Perhaps Saturday’s loss at Illinois State sapped their confidence. Regardless of the reason, the Aces played most of the first half on their terms with their hustle and discipline on offense taking charge.
“We didn’t come out with the right mindset,” Morris said. “You’ve got to be ready to get down and grind defensively.”
The final four minutes of the half rejuvenated WSU. Nurger and Shamet scored. Brown and Kelly steadied the defense and WSU’s full-court press changed the pace.
Nurger started an 11-1 run with his familiar lefty hook. A steal by Shamet, in the press, led to his two foul shots, cutting the lead to 32-24.
A three by Shamet made it 32-27. The Shockers clamped down again to force a shot-clock violation and Reaves made a three from the top of the key to bring WSU within 32-30.
WSU trailed 33-30 at halftime, a good place considering it trailed 32-19 and looked bewildered a few minutes earlier.
WSU started getting stops and making the tough plays — Kelly drawing a charge — to build its second half lead. Frankamp’s shooting loosened the defense. The press helped wear down the Aces. Markis McDuffie’s height bothered Brown’s shot during a crucial stretch. They matched Evansvville’s hustle and depth helped them continue to play hard.
“They’re hard to defend. Frankamp was the one guy that we definitely did not want to get threes and he gets four,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “Some of those are in transition, some of those are maybe helping when you shouldn’t.”
A 10-3 run gave WSU a 58-51 lead and forced Simmons to call timeout. A three by Frankamp, pulling up and letting fly on a break, signaled that the Shockers had torn free of Evansville’s defense.
“He’s our momentum,” Morris said. “When you see him getting confidence and pulling up and knocking them down, he gives everybody confidence.”