Maybe there’s some truth to the perceived magic of the yellow uniforms, which Wichita State wore each time during its season-best four-game winning streak.
Or, if you prefer a more rational take, the confidence built during that winning streak was not deterred by a road loss to Cincinnati and the Shockers are once again playing their best basketball in the months that matter most.
WSU is trending upward after it demolished Tulsa 81-60 on Wednesday at the Reynolds Center, where the Golden Hurricane was previously 12-2 and had beaten the likes of Kansas State and Temple. Winners of five of their last six, the Shockers improved to 13-12, and 6-7 in American Athletic Conference play behind a road performance that was unrecognizable compared to their previous eight road games.
“This year has been a rollercoaster, but now we’re going up,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “Even though we lost a lot early in the year, we learned from it and now we have the confidence that we’re going to do big things and make some noise at the end of the year.”
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The Shockers entered Wednesday averaging 59.3 points on 34.9-percent shooting from the field and 25.6-percent shooting on three-pointers with a 1-7 record in road games. Not that you would have ever guessed it watching WSU scorch the nets against a usually-stingy defense for a season-best performance on the road with 47.6-percent shooting and trying the program record with 15 threes on 45.5-percent accuracy.
Freshman Dexter Dennis stroked in a career-high six three-pointers and led WSU with 18 points and eight rebounds. Samajae Haynes-Jones followed with 17 points, including five three-pointers, Jaime Echenique scored 14 points, Erik Stevenson added 11 points and seven rebounds and Jamarius Burton and Ricky Torres combined for 17 of WSU’s season-best 24 assists. Burton’s 10 assists were the most by a true freshman in more than two decades in the program.
WSU scored a robust 1.17 points per possession, which easily surpassed the most efficient performance by an opponent on Tulsa’s home court (previous high was 1.09 ppp). All 15 of the Shockers’ three-pointers were assisted and each came without a single dribble. On top of the good shooting, WSU limited its turnovers to eight.
It wasn’t a flawless performance — WSU did allow 19 offensive rebounds — but Tulsa’s lackadaisical play was nowhere near capable of making the Shockers pay. Tulsa scored just 13 second-chance points, and shot a season-worst 30.2 percent from the floor.
“That was as well as we’ve played on the road,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “When you shoot the ball like we did (Wednesday), it obviously covers up a lot of issues. We did a wonderful job of being under control, executing our stuff and in the end we were able to get pretty good shots with good passing and precision. That leads to the 15 threes.”
The Shockers buried Tulsa in a three-point barrage in the second half, as WSU turned a 12-point lead into a 21-point lead in less than three minutes after Stevenson, Echenique and Haynes-Jones made four straight three-pointers to give WSU a 69-48 lead.
The Golden Hurricane had lost just twice previously on their home court, and those came to AAC title contenders in Cincinnati and Houston. And both of those games were relatively close, not like Wednesday when the Shockers led for 37 of the 40 minutes.
“I was really disappointed in our play, obviously,” Tulsa coach Frank Haith said. “I felt like we came out too amped up and we were missing layups and missing free throws and just not executing very well. Once they punched us in the mouth, we did not respond the way we needed to respond. That did not look like our team out there. I was very disappointed.”
Poor starts have plagued by the Shockers on the road, but Dennis ensured a good start on Wednesday. After scoring 11 points in the final 4:04 against Cincinnati, Dennis carried over that confidence with two straight three-pointers in the first four minutes against Tulsa. McDuffie added a jumper and Echenique scored inside to give WSU a 10-4 lead after the first media timeout.
This proved to be more than just a strong opening burst. Echenique and Asbjorn Midtgaard used their big frames to muscle inside for baskets, then McDuffie scored inside for a 16-7 lead.
After coach Gregg Marshall complained about his team’s passing following the loss to Cincinnati, when WSU logged a season-low eight assists on 19 made baskets, the Shockers equaled that total in the first nine minutes with assists on their first eight baskets against Tulsa. WSU finished the first half with 14 assists on 16 baskets, as point guards (Burton and Torres) combined for 10.
“They’ve heard about (passing) from me,” Marshall said. “This was maybe one of our best passing games of the year. I don’t know if (the good three-point shooting) coincides or not. I don’t know if we’re getting a little better or if this was just a special night. It could be a combination of those things. I was very pleased with the way we were sharing the basketball, though.”
Torres in particular dazzled the crowd with perhaps his finest passing of the season. He electrified WSU’s bench in his first minute in the game, splitting Tulsa’s zone defense at the top and then firing a no-look pass to a cutting McDuffie on the baseline for an easy basket. He also threw an on-point pass coming out of a timeout for an alley-oop dunk that Rod Brown flushed.
“It’s just good to work on something for so long and then see the results after you work on it,” said Torres, who had seven assists to no turnovers in 13 minutes. “We were grinding it out there for awhile and we knew passing was an issue for us. I felt like (Wednesday) we didn’t hesitate. We saw the open receiver and we made the play.”
What made WSU’s performance even more impressive was that it had an answer each time Tulsa made a run. When Tulsa cut the deficit to six, Stevenson immediately responded with a three. The Golden Hurricane again cut the deficit to six later in the half, only for the Shockers to end the half on a 9-1 run to take a 42-28 lead into halftime.
The run featured two more three-pointers, one by Dennis, who tied his career-high with four threes in the first half, then one by Haynes-Jones to beat the halftime buzzer.
“Mainly just confidence,” Dennis said. “I’m believing in myself, in my abilities and what I can do to help this team.”
The trend followed after halftime, as Tulsa scored the first four points to cut WSU’s lead to 42-32. Haynes-Jones and Dennis again teamed up for back-to-back three-pointers to restore the cushion to 16 points.
WSU, which returns home to play Memphis at Koch Arena on Saturday, protected a double-digit lead for the final 22:40 of the game.
“We’ve worked really hard at it and they’ve listened and been very coachable,” Marshall said. “It hasn’t been easy. But they’re getting better and they’re showing signs of improvement. Now we have to go home and protect home court for two games and maybe get over .500 in the conference and finish much better than one time it looked.”