Wichita State ended its second-half struggles to end the longest losing streak in the program in a decade with a 75-67 victory over the conference’s top team in Central Florida at Koch Arena late Wednesday.
The Shockers (8-8, 1-3) won their first game in American Athletic Conference play, snapped a four-game losing streak, and protected a halftime lead for the first time in the last three games. It was the first conference loss for UCF (13-3, 3-1) and just the third on the season.
Senior Markis McDuffie once again powered the way for the Shockers with a game-high 23 points. Fellow senior Samajae Haynes-Jones added 14, including a crucial jumper in the final minute, and freshman Jamarius Burton scored 12.
WSU made 51.9 percent of its field goals and made 17 of 18 free throws against one of the nation’s top defenses. The defense held the Knights to 42-percent shooting.
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Not that WSU didn’t create a nail-biter, despite a 63-56 lead with 4:24 remaining. That shrank to one, 63-62, as WSU sandwiched fouling a shooter two straight possessions (UCF made the extra free throw both times) around a turnover.
Dexter Dennis scored on a put-back for a 65-62 lead with 2:10 remaining, then the teams traded free throws with a pair of Haynes-Jones pushing the Shockers’ lead to 67-63 with 1:48 left.
Perhaps the biggest swing of the game came next when McDuffie hustled to get in position on UCF’s Aubrey Dawkins and drew an offensive foul with 1:08 remaining. On the other end, McDuffie came up with an offensive rebound, was fouled, and made both free throws for a 69-63 lead with 55 seconds left.
Haynes-Jones delivered the dagger with an end-of-shot-clock jumper, beating a UCF big man off the bounce and drilling an off-balance jumper for a 71-65 lead with 27 seconds left. UCF missed its next shot and Burton made a pair of free throws to secure the victory.
WSU wasn’t producing many defensive stops right after halftime, but it didn’t matter because it scored on five of its first six possessions, including six points from Haynes-Jones.
After a chilly 1-for-5 first half, Haynes-Jones got going by making a UCF defender dance on the perimeter with jukes, then blowing past him and finishing on a tear-drop floater. Next, he canned a mid-range jumper, then on the next possession blew past UCF 7-foot-6 giant Tacko Fall and finished at the rim for a 43-33 lead. At one point, Haynes-Jones even dribbled through the stretched legs of Fall in the second half.
But UCF’s hot start continued with the Knights making five of six three-pointers to start the second half to trim WSU’s lead to 47-46 with 11:24 remaining. McDuffie did his best to match UCF shot-for-shot, making three straight jumpers with the last being a three-pointer where he was fouled.
The four-point play by McDuffie gave WSU a 51-46 lead with 11:01 remaining and capped a stretch where the Shockers made 8 of 10 shots.
UCF cut the lead to three points twice, but WSU had an answer both times. Erik Stevenson found Jaime Echenique over the top for a lay-in, then Echenique connected with McDuffie for an alley-oop.
After the seniors carried the Shockers the first three games in conference play, youth that stepped up to carry the team in the first half Wednesday.
With McDuffie and Haynes-Jones a combined 3-for-11, the Shockers still took a 33-25 lead over the AAC’s last unbeaten thanks to 10 first-half points from freshman Burton and a career-high six points from sophomore Asbjorn Midtgaard.
Midtgaard brought the crowd to its feet by sinking two mid-range jumpers over the 7-6 Fall during an 8-0 spurt midway through the first half to break a 9-9 tie that forced UCF coach Johnny Dawkins to burn a timeout to halt the momentum.
Central Florida closed to within three, 22-19, with six minutes remaining, but Burton restored the Shockers’ cushion confidently stroking in just his second three-pointer of the season. McDuffie drained a difficult, step-back jumper in the corner and pushed WSU’s lead to 27-19 with 4:57 remaining.
Burton gave WSU a lift in the final minute. He started by aggressively attacking out of a pick-and-roll, forcing the big-man defender to retreat all the way back to the rim before popping an eight-foot jumper. Then with the clock expiring and nowhere to go, Burton pump-faked his defender and created contact with UCF’s Dayton Griffin to draw a foul with 1.1 seconds remaining.
Burton made all three free throws to give WSU an eight-point lead, 33-25, at halftime, but the cushion was created in large part to WSU’s defense. The Shockers forced UCF into under 35-percent shooting (9 of 26) from the field and 27-percent shooting (3 of 11) on three-pointers.