It had been a decade since the last time Gregg Marshall and the Shockers were mired in a four-game losing slump and the week had come where WSU was set to host two of the conference’s best teams in Central Florida and Cincinnati.
Coming away with at least one win this week was crucial.
WSU ensured that late Wednesday, snapping out of its funk and beating Central Florida 75-67 late Wednesday at Koch Arena. It was the first win for WSU (8-8, 1-3 AAC) since Dec. 19 and it snapped the seven-game winning streak by UCF (13-3, 3-1 AAC), which was the last unbeaten in the American Athletic Conference.
“It’s been a while since we won, since Christmas. We’re not used to that,” Marshall said. “It’s been tough on everyone. We deserve that. We earned that win because of how hard we’ve worked in practice and how positive they’ve remained.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
Here are six reasons why the Shockers beat the top team in the AAC:
1. An unreal mid-range shooting game
Almost any game plan for defending the Shockers would tell you to make them a jump-shooting team. Before Wednesday, WSU was shooting 27 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com, and 31 percent on three-pointers.
On Wednesday, the Shockers made 82 percent (14 of 17) of their two-point jumpers.
“I don’t know how much better we can play than we played (Wednesday),” Marshall said.
Senior Markis McDuffie scored a game-high 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting, an accuracy made even more impressive when considering McDuffie’s degree of difficulty. He made six of those on two-point jumpers, often times fading away and/or with a defender draped on him.
A hand in McDuffie’s face didn’t cut it Wednesday when he was dialed in like that.
“McDuffie is one of the best players we’ve faced all year,” Central Florida coach Johnny Dawkins said. “He hit tough shots. Hands in his face, falling away. But it’s not like he hasn’t done it before when I watched it on film. What can you do? Unless you foul him, he’s going to knock down tough shots.”
After a cold shooting start to the first half, McDuffie made his first five jumpers after halftime, capped by another four-point play when he drew a foul beyond the arc.
But it was actually the mid-range game of fellow senior Samajae Haynes-Jones that closed out the game for the Shockers.
Haynes-Jones has launched his fair share of floaters and two-point jumpers, but to little success this season. Per Hoop-Math.com, Haynes-Jones was shooting 21 percent on two-point jumpers before Wednesday.
But when it mattered most, with WSU clinging to a 69-65 lead with fewer than 30 seconds left, there was Haynes-Jones going off the dribble to get to his spot, the right side of the lane, and fading away while swishing a 12-footer.
“That’s just something I work on every day, that pull-up, mid-range shot,” Haynes-Jones said. “I’ve been working on that all my life, so I have confidence to knock it down.”
2. The Tacko defense
B.J. Taylor (15 points) and Aubrey Dawkins (22 points) are UCF’s most skilled players, but every game plan starts with how to defend 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall. He rarely scores more than 15 points, but he can collapse a defense if not defended properly.
Credit WSU assistant Lou Gudino for another effective game plan, as he devised a defensive scheme that all but nullified Fall and scrambled UCF’s offense for the first half.
UCF’s offense loves to run high-low action with 6-11 power forward Collin Smith catching at the top of the key and looking to throw the entry pass to Fall. WSU blew up UCF’s go-to action by having its power forward, either McDuffie or Rod Brown, sag 10 feet off Smith to discourage the entry pass into Fall.
Smith didn’t know how to take advantage of the space given to him. Although he did connect on one three-pointer, WSU’s game plan to ignore him on the perimeter clogged up the driving lanes for Taylor and Dawkins.
As a result, Fall’s touches in the paint were limited and UCF’s offense sputtered to 25 first-half points on 35-percent shooting.
“It was just being physical,” WSU center Asbjorn Midtgaard said. “They play a big lineup and their 4-man couldn’t shoot, so we took our 4-man back down to help me and Jaime (Echenique) to not let Tacko get the ball at all. We tried to be physical, push him out of the paint, limit his paint touches.”
WSU is also one of the few teams UCF has played that has multiple big men who can guard Fall. Although Midtgaard, who checks in at 7 feet and 268 pounds, said it was “strange” to look up to another man, he held his own along with Echenique, who is 6-11 and 258.
Fall attempted just four shots and scored six points in 32 minutes.
“They’re one of the few teams that have a number of bigs they can throw at you,” Dawkins said. “That was a big part of what they did: sending a number of guys at him and crowding him. More than one guy usually was guarding him and that made it difficult for him.”
3. The perseverance of Asbjorn Midtgaard
Speaking of Midtgaard, he delivered his best game as a Shocker on Wednesday with a career-high six points, four rebounds, one assist and one block in a career-high 16 minutes.
It hasn’t been an easy season for the sophomore from Denmark, who hasn’t played in three games and has played more than four minutes in just four games this season prior to Wednesday.
When asked how he persevered through the rough patches, Midtgaard said it was simple.
“You just have to,” Midtgaard said. “When you’re on a team, you owe it to the guys to keep going. You have to keep practicing, keep going hard, keeping giving your 100 percent. Otherwise, it’s just disrespectful to the whole program.
“Of course, to get this opportunity to come out and play and help the team win, nothing feels better. It’s the best.”
Midtgaard brought the Koch Arena crowd to its feet multiple times in the first half, as he made three straight mid-range jumpers.
Although that’s new to the fans, Marshall said he wasn’t surprised by Midtgaard’s soft shooting touch.
“He is European, that is what they do,” Marshall said. “They can shoot the basketball. He’s got a great little mid-range game.”
Although the career-high points is what many will remember from Midtgaard’s breakout game, he also made an impact without the ball.
His screens don’t count for assists, but they should. He set one to free McDuffie up for a dunk. Late in the first half, Midtgaard devoured Haynes-Jones’ defender with a screen, freeing the senior up to make a jumper. Midtgaard sent a UCF defender to the ground with a forceful screen in the second half, sending Ricky Torres straight to the rim for an open layup he missed.
“He was a huge part of this win,” McDuffie said. “We’re happy for guys who really haven’t had the chance and start contributing and show what they can do. It’s an amazing and beautiful sight to see.”
Midtgaard’s screens against UCF were particularly effective when Fall was guarding him.
“Tacko doesn’t come out and hedge, so you almost have a 2-on-1 when you set a ball screen on the guard,” Marshall said.
“I just tried to set screens for other people to get motion in and get Tacko out of the paint, so they could drive and shoot the ball,” Midtgaard said. “But it ended up being me being open, so I shot it. Simple.”
4. The freshmen grow up
The last three assignments for WSU freshman Jamarius Burton have included Temple’s Shizz Alston, Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. and Central Florida’s B.J. Taylor. All could be first-team, all-conference players.
Burton has had bumpy stretches, but responded with perhaps his finest two-way game of the season on Wednesday. He scored 12 points, including a team-high 10 in the first half, held up under the pressure of playing 28 minutes, and played a large role in holding Taylor to 4-of-10 shooting.
“He looked like he belonged out there and could be a great player,” Marshall said. “That hasn’t been the case. Not just him, but others. We’ve looked timid and looked a little uneasy. (Wednesday), they look like they belonged and took us home.”
The difference for Burton, who had scored double figures just twice before Wednesday, was his aggression on offense. He played fast, but under control. The game started with Burton taking Fall off the dribble in the corner and finishing with a layup.
Burton confidently made a three-pointer, only his second of the season. Late in the first half, he aggressively attacked out of the pick-and-roll, pushing the UCF big man all the way into the restricted area before pulling up for an eight-foot jumper.
“I just try to play as hard as I can on defense because I know that gives us a greater chance of winning,” Burton said. “I feel like if I go out there and play hard defensively, the offense will take care of itself.”
“I thought we got our best game from the point guard play in a long with JB,” Marshall said.
And how about going against all-conference guards every time out as an 18-year-old?
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Burton said. “I just follow the game plan and defend hard and if they hit tough shots, then I’ll live with it.”
Since returning from a concussion at the start of conference play, fellow freshman Dexter Dennis has been consistent. He isn’t relying on his offense to make an impact, rather Dennis is making more winning plays with his defense and rebounding.
That was again the case against UCF, as Dennis played outstanding defense denying Aubrey Dawkins the ball in the first half. While Dawkins got loose in the second half, Dennis limited him to six points at halftime and drew the second foul on him by sliding his feet to beat him to the spot.
Dennis’ penchant for offensive rebounds came through in a timely fashion again, as his follow putback with 2:10 remaining provided the answer for when UCF cut WSU’s lead to 63-62 with 2:42 remaining. Dennis has grabbed 21 rebounds the last three games, including nine offensive.
“I was thinking this during the game, win or lose, I’m having so much fun coaching this group,” Marshall said. “We’re getting better and better. It’s one guy here, another guy here. We’re seeing little, incremental improvements with the team and individuals. I’m really enjoying that process. This isn’t a year where we’re fighting for seeding. We’re just trying to get as many wins as we can and improve this basketball team by improving the individuals and developing their talents and teaching them how hard and long they have to battle to beat a team like that.”
5. Markis McDuffie accepts the challenge
WSU doesn’t hold off Central Florida without McDuffie and not because of his offense, which is hard to believe considering he poured in a game-high 23 points.
The Shockers couldn’t stop UCF junior Aubrey Dawkins, who scored 11 first-half points and had 17 total at the halfway point of the second half. That’s when Marshall asked McDuffie to take on the defensive assignment, one that he didn’t hesitate to accept.
“We don’t want him to do that because he has to spend so much energy scoring points for us,” Marshall said. “But man, he did a great job.”
At 6-8, McDuffie’s length seemed to bother Dawkins more. The first time they matched up, Dawkins attempted a fadeaway jumper over McDuffie that missed. The next time down, McDuffie stayed in front of a Dawkins drive and forced a wild shot that Echenique slid over to swat away.
“It’s been tough the last month or so,” McDuffie said. “Nobody likes losing. We always believed we were a good team, we just had to get over the hump. We were tired hearing about second-half slumps and all that.”
Although Dawkins scored a three-point play down the stretch, McDuffie exacted his revenge in the final 90 seconds when Dawkins tried to drive past him and McDuffie beat him to the spot and drew an offensive foul with 1:28 remaining. On the other end, McDuffie made two free throws to extend WSU’s lead to 69-63.
“He really wanted to win,” Marshall said. “It’s bothering everybody, but it’s bothering guys like Markis the most. Guys that’s been around some great teams and championships and wins, maybe a little spoiled with winning. It’s been affecting him like it’s been affecting all of us who have been around here. We really wanted to get this one.”
“Everybody contributed and I was just so happy,” McDuffie said. “I almost cried during the game because I was so happy. It’s been hard the last couple days, the last month.”
6. A message on how to overcome adversity
The last thing WSU players saw before they exited their last-minute meeting before Wednesday night’s game was a message intended to instill the right mentality on a team stuck on a four-game losing streak.
“Adversity introduces a man to himself,” coach Gregg Marshall had written with a black marker on the dry-erase board. “It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself, that determines how your life story will develop.”
WSU’s character coach Steve Dickie stressed to the players adversity can either define a team or refine a team.
After the win, Marshall reflected on how he felt his players absorbed that message.
“We’ve been through our share of adversity,” Marshall said. “Nothing has gone our way for a while. But you have to keep fighting. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.
You can let adversity define you or let adversity refine you. Just like iron ore is refined to become strong steel. That’s what our team has done and that’s what we choose to do (Wednesday).”
So the coaches and players danced and sang and let loose in the locker room after the win. For one night at long last, they could finally release the pent-up frustration that had snowballed for the past four weeks.
“It felt like we won a championship or something,” McDuffie said. “It’s been a hard month. So much negative energy that’s been inside us, so much drought. We were tired of losing. To get a win against a great team like UCF just shows what we’re capable of.”