Wichita State’s Shaq Morris waved to the fans after his post-game interview with CBS Sports Network. He walked toward the locker room, waving at more fans and hugging coach Gregg Marshall.
It was a good moment for Morris, who scored 21 points and again performed like a difference-making big man in Saturday’s 78-63 win over Missouri State in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at Scottrade Center.
Second-seeded WSU plays top-seeded Illinois State on Sunday in the title game that the Valley appeared destined for since December. The teams split regular-season meetings, both winning at home, with the Shockers getting in the big punch with a 41-point win.
WSU (29-4) will lean on Morris again and again he may be the presence that Illinois State finds hard to counter. At times in Morris’ previous three-plus seasons at WSU, he seemed an unlikely candidate for TV interviews and victory laps. Marshall often complained about Morris’ work ethic and while his potential remained significant, his playing time and production remained spotty, in part of because of injury and conditioning.
“It’s a testament to him sticking it out,” Marshall said. “There was a few times where I’m not sure that I wanted him around and I’m not sure he wanted to be around, but we both got through it.”
And both are prospering.
The Shockers are one win from earning the MVC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament after their 14th straight win. That dominates Morris’ thoughts. He will savor moments like the ones after Saturday’s game after the season.
“The most important thing is our team winning,” he said. “The more we win, the closer we grow. We just want to be a great team and take the stress off our coaching staff and ourselves and be dependable every time we step on the court.”
WSU’s Conner Frankamp scored 18 points on 6-of-12 three-point shooting. Markis McDuffie added 15, eight in an 81-second burst that gave the Shockers a nine-point lead early in the second half.
Sixth-seeded Missouri State (17-16) lost to the Shockers for the 15th straight time and the fifth in a tournament game.
Jarred Dixon led the Bears with 20 points. Alize Johnson scored 16 and grabbed seven rebounds.
MSU missed 20 of 28 threes and shot 37.9 percent from the field. Guard Dequon Miller, averaging 12.9 points entering the game, scored five on 2-of-13 shooting.
The Shockers return to the tournament title game for the seventh time and the fourth under Marshall. They last won it in 2014, also their last appearance.
Both WSU and Illinois State are NCAA at-large candidates and both desperately want a win Sunday to relieve the stress of waiting on March 12’s selection show. Morris is thinking about the people on selection committee when he refers to doubters. One more win, and the Shockers leave no doubt.
“Now we just want to let the doubters down and win it all,” he said.
Even while Saturday’s win fell a bit short of WSU’s usual offensive standards, the Shockers did many of the things few MVC teams match. They made 10 of 20 three-pointers. They grabbed 12 offensive rebounds. They outscored the Bears by nine points at the line.
“When they’re making those shots, you’ve got to respond and make some shots,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said.
MSU kept the Shockers from running away with switching defenses, often using a zone to slow the pace.
WSU missed nine of its first 10 shots and fell behind 12-2.
“They came out and punched first,” Marshall said. “The first four minutes, we weren’t very good.”
Landry Shamet’s three started the rally. Frankamp made two. McDuffie swished one from the corner to cut the lead to 17-16. A jumper by Daishon Smith ended a 15-2 run that gave the Shockers a 20-17 lead.
WSU stretched that lead to 37-27 on a basket by Darral Willis. Three turnovers ended its momentum and WSU didn’t score in the final 3:09 of the half.
The Bears finished the half on a 7-0 run and trailed 37-34 at halftime.
The Bears continued to push the Shockers early in the second half. A three by Miller cut WSU’s lead to 39-37.
A burst by McDuffie – two threes and a long two – gave the Shockers a 55-45 lead.
A 9-4 run, capped by a long Frankamp three, put the Shockers up 68-54. Frankamp’s three, after faking a defender past him, made it 73-57.
“He’s a major-league shot-maker,” Lusk said.
- When: 1 p.m. Sunday
- Who: No. 21 Wichita St. vs. Illinois St.
- Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis
- Radio: 103.7-FM
- TV: KWCH