If the first 10 games of the season have proven anything, it’s that rarely will anything ever be easy for this youthful Wichita State men’s basketball team.
The Shockers built a 17-point lead in the second half, allowed Southern Mississippi to rally back to take a one-point lead in the final minute, re-took the lead on a Jaime Echenique alley-oop, then nervously withstood three free throws to tie the game with less than a second remaining.
WSU ended its two-year slide in the Intrust Bank Arena game with a 63-60 victory over Southern Mississippi on Saturday. It was the second straight win for WSU (6-4), while Southern Mississippi fell to 7-3.
Wichita State’s Echenique scored a career-high 17 points and notched his first career double-double with 11 rebounds, while Markis McDuffie scored 17 points with eight rebounds and Samajae Haynes-Jones added 11 points.
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After coming up with a defensive stand in the final minute, WSU extended its lead to 63-60 when Morris Udeze and McDuffie, after an Erik Stevenson tip-out, split their pair of free throws.
With 0.7 seconds left on the clock, Haynes-Jones fouled the three-point shooter, Tyree Griffin, to give Southern Mississippi three free throws and a chance to tie the game. But Griffin, a 73-percent free-throw shooter, was injured on the play and couldn’t shoot the free throws.
That meant WSU coaches were allowed to pick the shooter, and they choose Leonard Harper-Baker, a 67-percent shooter. He missed all three free throws.
Every time WSU had an answer down the stretch, Southern Miss. was able to produce a response. When Echenique scored for a 57-53 lead, Griffin came down and drained a contested three. When Stevenson made a pair of free throws for a WSU 59-56 lead, Cortez Edwards scored, then Dominic Magee gave Southern Mississippi a 60-59 lead with 53 seconds remaining.
That’s when Marshall called timeout to set up a half-court play against the Golden Eagles’ zone. What resulted was a back screen that freed up Echenique for a lob from Ricky Torres for the go-ahead basket and 61-60 lead with 36 seconds left.
After an uninspiring start to the second half, WSU raised its level of play to pull away from Southern Miss with a 13-2 run to create a 17-point lead, 46-26, its largest of the game.
Echenique scored on back-to-back possessions, a streaking Torres on a fastbreak blazed a no-look pass to Udeze for two points, and McDuffie capped the rally with a wide-open three and two free throws.
But nothing is easy for a team with this much inexperience.
Much like it did when it built a 33-point lead on Baylor, WSU grew stagnant on offense. The cuts weren’t as crisp, the screens not as punishing, the passes non-existent.
Slowly, but surely, empty possession after empty possession allowed Southern Miss. back into the game. In a span of three minutes, WSU’s lead went from 52-36 to 52-46 with more than seven minutes remaining.
Southern Miss trimmed the lead to 52-50, thanks to 10 straight empty possessions by WSU’s offense that featured three turnovers and seven missed shots. The scoreless streak was ended by Stevenson, who drilled a corner three to restore WSU’s lead to 55-50 with 4:37 remaining.
The first 10 minutes of the game didn’t inspire confidence, as Southern Mississippi accomplished its goal of keeping the pace of the game at a crawl and its pack-line defense had walled off much of WSU’s penetration. Echenique had also drawn the frustration of his coach after letting an entry pass roll off his fingertips out of bounds, then missing an open layup. WSU was unable to build any resemblance of a flow and trailed 12-11.
WSU didn’t create separation until late in the second half when it outscored Southern Mississippi 13-5 over a six-minute stretch to build a 29-21 lead. Haynes-Jones finished two acrobatic layups, Echenique scored in the post, Rod Brown scored on a tip-in, then the rally was capped by a Haynes-Jones three off the dribble.
The Shockers went into halftime with a 33-25 advantage, thanks to a dominant rebounding performance over a poor rebounding team in Southern Mississippi. WSU grabbed 21 of 22 possible defensive rebounds and added six offensive rebounds to hold a 27-15 edge over Southern Miss. at halftime.