Wichita State renovated Koch Arena with a day like Saturday as a dream, part of a vision hard to imagine in 2002. Fifteen years later, the 29-point win, the 25th victory of the season, the NBA alumni in the stands are signs the investment paid off more than most thought possible.
Saturday seemed routine from the standpoint that the Shockers won again, 73-44 over Northern Iowa.
Consider the opponent, one unafraid of the Shockers. Consider the appearance of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, on break from their NBA teams, and consider the long list of strong performances and perhaps it was a day worth savoring more than most this season.
Northern Iowa’s history and hot streak deserved consideration as a roadblock to Wichita State’s NCAA Tournament resume and spot atop the Missouri Valley Conference.
Sweep that away.
The Shockers treated the Panthers much like they did in early January before UNI roared into third place. WSU led by 12 at halftime and weathered a brief second-half rally by outscoring UNI 12-2 to build an 18-point lead.
“They’ve shown they can be really, really good,” VanVleet said. “They definitely shoot it way better than any of my teams ever did. That can be dangerous come postseason time.”
Every win makes it harder for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to ignore what VanVleet sees. Two more and WSU will clinch at least a share of its fourth consecutive MVC title. Five more and they are guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Tournament for a sixth season in a row.
“Everybody in our locker room knows we're an NCAA Tournament team,” WSU guard Landry Shamet said.
WSU (25-4, 15-1 MVC) won its 10th straight game and will enter the final week of the regular season in first place. Illinois State, a half-game behind WSU, plays Loyola on Sunday.
Shamet scored 14 points for WSU. Darral Willis also scored 14 and grabbed 11 rebounds for his first double-double since the MVC opener at Indiana State. Markis McDuffie added 12 points and seven rebounds.
UNI (14-13, 9-7) saw its four-game win streak end, losing for the second time in its past 10 games.
Spencer Haldeman led UNI with 13 points off the bench. Bennett Koch added nine. UNI’s other four starters combined to make 4 of 32 shots.
Wichita State made scoring look easy against Northern Iowa’s defense early in the game, which almost never happens. Twice the Panthers went for shot-fakes, rare breakdowns, to give the Shockers baskets.
“First six minutes of the game, we made some mistakes defensively,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “They made us pay. All of sudden, they’re off to a very good start.”
McDuffie snuck open for a three, challenged too late by UNI’s Jeremy Morgan. Conner Frankamp curled through screens for a layup. Shaq Morris drew the first foul on UNI center Bennett Koch. A three by Shamet made it 10-4. Morris scored in the lane.
After McDuffie eluded Klint Carlson for a layup and a 14-4 lead, Jacobson had to call timeout.
“We scored 14 points pretty quickly and that’s not the way it goes usually against them,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
After those early minutes, scoring didn’t come as easily as most games for the Shockers. Their stifling defense picked up all the slack by holding the Panthers to 27-percent shooting. Carlson missed 14 of his 15 shots. Morgan missed 9 of 11. With Koch in foul trouble, the Panthers had few other options.
WSU shot 43 percent from the field, its lowest since the loss at Illinois State. It out-rebounded UNI 48-23. WSU’s 12 offensive rebounds led to 14 second-chance points, a 12-point edge.
UNI started the second half with a 6-0 run to cut WSU’s lead to 38-32. The Shockers missed six of their first seven shots.
That cold stretch ended quickly and WSU responded with a 14-2 run.
Shamet’s three-pointer started it. Willis and McDuffie contributed three-point plays and Rashard Kelly a two-handed dunk. UNI’s offense faded when Koch picked up his fourth foul trying to rebound against Willis.
The Shockers jumped to a 14-4 lead to force UNI to call timeout less than four minutes in.
“We just wanted to come out and punch first and be aggressive,” Shamet said.