Wednesday night’s game at Koch Arena between Wichita State and SMU came down to the final play, but there were more reasons than just Samajae Haynes-Jones’ last-second game-winner that the Shockers prevailed 85-83.
Here’s a look at three of the main reasons why WSU improved to 2-6 in American Athletic Conference play and 9-11 overall.
How WSU defended SMU’s pop plays
SMU torched WSU’s defense for a 45-38 halftime lead and 1.36 points per possession, mostly by exploiting the advantage it held over WSU’s frontcourt in terms of quickness and shooting.
It was a carbon copy performance of what Oklahoma did last season to the Shockers at Intrust Bank Arena. Only this time, instead of Brady Manek, it was SMU stretch forward Isiaha Mike inflicting most of the damage against a WSU defense not switching screens.
The action was simple: SMU would space the floor and bring Mike up to set a ball screen for point guard Jimmy Whitt. It was Whitt’s job to turn the corner aggressively so Mike’s defender would be forced to stay to prevent the dribble penetration. Meanwhile, Mike spotted up at the top of the key for a three-pointer.
“They spread the floor and it was hard for our five men to guard them,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s very difficult for them to get out and defend that.”
SMU exploited this three times in the first half, each time with a different WSU defender, as Whitt dragged them far enough away where they couldn’t challenge the shot when he whipped a pass back to Mike who stroked in the three-pointer. Mike finished with a game-high 25 points, including a career-high five three-pointers.
WSU actually lucked out that SMU center Ethan Chargois, who was shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc, went 0 for 6 on threes. Without his outside shot falling, Chargois still took advantage of WSU’s bigger and slower centers by driving past them and finished with 16 points.
“That was just miscommunication,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “We didn’t get out to their shooters and they were making them. We just had to communicate more. They did a good job attacking and bringing in the defense and then throwing it back. But we did a better job in the second half.”
Credit Marshall for making the halftime adjustment to avoid at all costs putting its 7-footers on Mike and also to start switching every screen that involved him. While SMU certainly found other ways to score, this took away its bread-and-butter from the first half and limited Mike to one three-pointer in the second half.
“I thought Wichita did a good job adjusting,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “They switched up matchups and that helped and then they were obviously more cognizant of what was taking place.”
How WSU made SMU pay on the other end
The game-within-the-game was how each team was using the center position to its advantage. While SMU played fleet-footed posts with guard-like skills at center, WSU countered with a pair of massive 7-footers in Asbjorn Midtgaard and Jaime Echenique who were able to exert their will inside.
SMU simply had no answer for Echenique or Midtgaard, who average 263 pounds, when the Mustangs were at times trying to defend them with 190- and 200-pound players.
“It was difficult for us to defend them, but on the other end our five men gave them problems too,” Marshall said.
WSU started taking advantage of this midway through the first half when Ricky Torres and Midtgaard teamed up for back-to-back pick-and-roll plays that ended with Midtgaard dunks. Torres is the team’s best passer in these plays because he’s perfected the timing of it. After taking the screen, Torres drags the defender along to buy time until SMU’s weak-side defender stops tagging Midtgaard on the roll. That’s the precise moment Torres fires in the pass and it led to two thunderous dunks.
“He does a really good job with ball screens and rolling,” Marshall said. “That’s what we wanted to do was get behind their post players on the roll and let the guard look for his offense, then the roller.”
But it wasn’t just the roll where WSU had success feeding its big men. When WSU was patient enough and moved the ball on offense, Echenique and Midtgaard feasted on the matchups. There were multiple times when they would swoop in, use their wide frame to establish position, receive the pass, drop step and dunk.
Echenique missed three shots right at the rim earlier in the game, leaving Marshall exasperated and WSU deflated. But the junior from Colombia maintained his confidence and carried the Shockers down the stretch. He scored seven of his 12 points in the final four minutes, three times breaking a tie to give WSU the lead with either a finish at the rim or free throws.
“You can never give up,” Echenique said. “Every situation can be good or bad, but you have to determination which situation you want to take. Do you want to put your head down or do you want to keep going? I wanted to keep going as hard as possible because I know I can help my teammates. I wanted to do whatever I could to help. You have to be tough and keep your head up and never give up.”
WSU’s supporting cast gets its ‘mojo’ back
The other game-within-the-game was SMU’s defense forcing anyone other than McDuffie to beat them. WSU’s supporting cast was up for the challenge on Wednesday, as the Shockers had five different scorers in double-figures for the first time this season and Jamarius Burton was one point away from making it six.
Too often has been the case this year where WSU has no support and McDuffie is left feeling like he has to rescue the offense with tough, fadeaway shots. McDuffie is good enough to hit those, but that’s not good long-term offense and we saw it catch up to the Shockers last week in two ugly road losses.
Wednesday was a breath of fresh air. WSU received perhaps its best 40 combined minutes of point guard play from Burton and Torres, who teamed up for 11 assists and just one turnover. Echenique and Midtgaard combined for 22 points and nine rebounds at center. And then the two constants, seniors McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones, were efficient scorers with a combined 32 points on 23 shots.
“It was the best it’s been in a long time,” McDuffie said. “Everyone was more confident. All of those guys who contributed were waiting for this moment. That definitely takes the pressure off of me when they start hitting shots. Now they have other guys to worry about and that’s really going to help us out.”
But the real difference-maker was the return of confidence from freshman Erik Stevenson, who snapped out of a two-month slump and scored a team-high 17 points. On a team desperate for outside shooting from someone other than McDuffie to stretch defenses, Stevenson scored the most points (17) and three-pointers (three) in a game since going for 18 points in a Dec. 1 win over Baylor.
In the 12 games prior to Wednesday, Stevenson had averaged 4.5 points and shot 18 percent (8 for 44) on three-pointers. Asked afterward in his postgame radio interview where he had been, Stevenson responded, “I’ve been in the gym trying to get my mojo back.”
That mojo did not come back immediately though, as Stevenson’s first shot was an air ball. But he seemed to get his rhythm when he was able to catch and shoot an open three in the corner that swished with 6:11 remaining in the first half. He said afterward that he had built up a good feeling before the game.
“I was on the (shooting machine) and got up 300 shots just trying to get a sweat going before shootaround,” Stevenson said. “And then shootaround I started making shots and seeing the ball go in built my confidence up for the game (that night).”
Stevenson delivered timely points throughout the second half. He drilled a three to cap an 11-4 rally out of halftime, as WSU erased a seven-point halftime deficit before the first media timeout. He made a pair of free throws to give WSU its first lead. He rescued WSU late in the shot clock with a pump fake and then 15-foot pull-up jumper. His third three injected WSU with confidence after SMU had just hit a three to extend its lead to 58-54.
“When I get into that zone and I get that look, I feel like I’m throwing the ball in the ocean,” Stevenson said. “I feel like I can’t miss and that brings the defense out even further, so I can pump fake, take one dribble and pull up. When I hit shots, it helps the team.”
The final five minutes featured the two teams combining to score 30 points and on 16 of 17 possessions with WSU registering the only defensive stop. The Shockers scored 17 points and on each of their final nine possessions to close out the win. Now WSU will have a chance to keep momentum going with another home game Saturday against Tulsa.
“You have to have a lot of good performances to win in this league,” Marshall said. “We just haven’t had that. It’s hard. We have to have more good performances. Those kids needed that shot to go in and that shot of adrenaline that winning creates. Hopefully now we can built on it.”