Glimpses of Wichita State’s best play were all that were available on Sunday in a nationally televised ESPN game at Cincinnati.
For the majority of the game, Cincinnati’s defense suffocated the Shockers into one of their poorest offensive showings of the season. WSU displayed resiliency, but lost 72-62.
The loss snapped WSU’s season-best four-game winning streak and dropped the Shockers to 1-7 on the road this season. Cincinnati (21-4, 10-2 American Athletic Conference) won its 14th straight game at FifthThird Arena, while WSU fell to 12-12 overall and 5-7 in conference play.
The teams combined to shoot 30.2 percent from the field, but Cincinnati had the trump card in junior Jarron Cumberland, who scored a game-high 27 points, including six three-pointers. UC outscored WSU 22-15 at the free throw line and made 45.5 percent of its three-pointers, while the Shockers finished shooting 26.8 percent from the field.
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“This season is about small victories for us,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We didn’t win the game. We weren’t supposed to win the game against a very good team with a great home-court advantage, but we saw some positives and now I’ve got to get more guys playing well.”
Some of those positives:
- Freshman Dexter Dennis registered his first career double-double, scoring 14 points thanks to a late flurry of three-pointers and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds. Twelve of his 13 rebounds were on the defensive end, as Dennis was crucial swooping in to win rebounds for the Shockers. “He’s one of those guys that we have athletically that can compete in a game like this,” Marshall said. “He doesn’t give up much from the size and athleticism perspective. He was just battling, thank goodness.”
- The Shockers made three separate runs in the second half to claw back into the game from double-digit deficits. WSU trimmed the deficit to six points once and seven points twice, but never had a possession to cut it further.
- WSU dominated the glass the second half, outrebounding Cincinnati 30-14. The Shockers grabbed 17 of 18 defensive rebounds, then pounded the Bearcats for 13 offensive rebounds and grabbed 50 percent of their misses. “Shockers are known for rebounding and we weren’t doing our thing in the first half,” said WSU freshman Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler, who finished with a career-high six offensive rebounds, all in the second half. “(Marshall) got on our head about it, so we came out fired up and we knew we had to bring it after that.”
- WSU’s defense defended Cincinnati brilliantly inside the arc, as centers Jaime Echenique and Asbjorn Midtgaard each swatted three shots. That held UC to a season-low 27.8 percent (10 of 36) on two-point shots. “We’re getting better as a team,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “We showed some growth here (Sunday) to give it our all, instead of folding. We fought hard until the end. We have to keep our heads up and try to win the next one now.”
While those positives did exist, they were brief. For the better part of the game, WSU’s offense was uncomfortable against Cincinnati’s shape-shifting defense. The Bearcats claim to play a match-up zone, but in reality it functions more like a switch-happy man defense.
Regardless of the technicalities, UC’s defense accomplished its goal to turn WSU into a jump-shooting team. The Shockers were baited into launching a season-high 35 three-pointers, which they converted just 25.7 percent, the fourth-lowest percentage on the season.
When WSU’s guards did happen to penetrate, UC’s defenders were escorting them straight to their supreme shot-blocker, Nysier Brooks, who finished with five blocks. Brooks affected many more, as WSU made just 10 of 36 two-point shots for a season-low 27.8 percent. The Shockers also missed 14 of 17 of their two-point jumpers.
“The things we do defensively is to try to make you score over (Brooks),” UC coach Mick Cronin said. “He’s improved so much at challenging shots without fouling.”
“We shot 27 percent for the game and 26 percent on threes,” Marshall said. “A lot of that is credited to their defense, but a lot of that is credited to us taking some bad ones. We took several shots that Brooks could block with either his armpit or his elbow. He didn’t even have to extend his arm. We had little guards shooting when they should have drawn the defense and then make the next play.”
WSU’s offense sputtered in the first half because it couldn’t figure out a way to make Cincinnati pay for switching guards onto centers and big men onto guards. WSU’s motion offense relies heavily on creating separation from screens and when that separation was taken away, the Shockers’ offense turned stagnant and failed to exploit the mismatch.
By halftime, WSU’s starting center, Echenique, had played nine minutes and taken just one shot, a three-pointer. Midtgaard (five points, six rebounds) was better off the bench, but WSU still didn’t leverage his size as much as it could have.
WSU loves to feed McDuffie at the top of the key following a pick-and-roll to exploit the help defense. But Cincinnati’s defense took this option away by switching everything and instructing McDuffie’s defender to not help off. That strategy prevented McDuffie from taking a shot in the game’s first nine minutes.
In total, Cincinnati held WSU’s starting five to a combined 17.8 shooting. McDuffie finished with 13 points on 4 of 15 shooting; Samajae Haynes-Jones scored eight points on 3 of 13 shooting. Echenique, Erik Stevenson and Jamarius Burton were a combined 1 for 17.
“They’re really good defensively and they were very conscious of the roll up this time,” McDuffie said. “They would switch and the guard would just turn around and guard me and it was like I was rolling up for nothing. They made it difficult to score because every time you catch somebody is right there.”
“In fairness to Markis, I thought he got some looks that he normally makes,” Cronin said. “But we put a lot of effort into it. When a guy has to work that hard every game for every shot because everybody is playing that kind of defense on him, it’s tough. And what happens is you finally get that open one and then you don’t have the legs to make it.”
Momentum seemed to shift the moment after McDuffie drilled a go-ahead three-pointer that put WSU up 20-19 with 8:41 remaining. From that point until halftime, UC seemingly grabbed every loose ball and won every rebound in question.
As the Bearcats surged, the Shockers wilted. WSU’s final 14 possessions of the first half netted just four points and included 1-for-12 shooting, 0-for-5 three-point shooting, two shot-clock violations and three other turnovers. That allowed Cincinnati to turn what had been a back-and-forth game into a 10-point advantage, 34-24, at halftime.
“The game changed when we started diving on the floor and not being too cool to put out effort,” Cronin said. “In basketball, 80 to 90 percent of this is effort. Somebody has to be the first guy to do it and then it becomes contagious.”
That scoreline wasn’t representative of the determination WSU showed in the game’s first 12 minutes. The Shockers recovered from falling behind 10-3 in the first four minutes with an 11-0 run to take the lead on the home court of one of a conference title contender.
Dennis provided the first spark with a three-pointer, then Midtgaard gave WSU an 11-10 lead on a three-point play he completed with a follow dunk while being fouled. Haynes-Jones capped the run when McDuffie passed up a good shot in transition to give his teammate a great shot, a three that Haynes-Jones swished for a 14-10 lead with 13:31 remaining.
All of this made even more impressive by the fact that McDuffie, who entered second in the AAC in scoring at nearly 19 points per game, did not take his first shot of the game until 10:40 remaining in the first half. McDuffie finished the half with five points on seven shots, while Cumberland powered UC’s offense with 14 points on 11 shots.
Much like its earlier road loss to Houston, WSU can find positives in its performance against an NCAA Tournament team in a raucous environment. But every time it made a run, Cincinnati had the answer.
WSU fell behind by 14, 38-24, within the first minute of the second half, but climbed back into the game with a 7-0 run to trim UC’s lead to 40-33 with 15:20 remaining. Stevenson drilled an open corner three to get the run started, then Ricky Torres capped it with a mid-range jumper. Cumberland responded with back-to-back threes to extend the lead.
WSU came right back with another 7-0 run sparked by hustle off the bench from freshman Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler. McDuffie started the run with a three, then Poor Bear-Chandler scored four straight points courtesy of a pair of offensive rebounds. This time WSU trimmed UC’s lead to 46-40 with 12:03 remaining, but the Bearcats responded with a 7-0 run of their own to restore the cushion.
“Shoot, (offensive rebounding) was keeping me in the game, so I had to keep doing it,” Poor Bear-Chandler said.
WSU outscored Cincinnati 23-6 in second-chance points.
“You’re going to get a lot of opportunities to score second-chance points when you shoot it the way we did,” Marshall said.
The Shockers trailed by as many as 19 points after that, but blitzed the Bearcats for a 16-4 scoring spree in the final five minutes to come to within 66-59 with 48.7 seconds remaining following a Dennis three. But WSU, which will travel to Tulsa on Wednesday, could never get closer.
“We’re learning how to compete on the road,” Dennis said. “I think you can see we’re growing each and every day. I see that. There were some games early in the season where we kind of got down on ourselves and gave up. But (Sunday), we didn’t do that. We fought.”