For 39 minutes and 59.5 seconds, Dexter Dennis was shut out in his first game in his home state of Louisiana in front of 80 relatives and friends.
But he made the final 0.5 seconds count, as the freshman from Baker delivered a corner three-point dagger to give Wichita State its third buzzer-beating win in its last 11 games, this one an 82-79 victory at Tulane on Saturday to conclude the regular season. Dennis finished with three points on 1-of-5 shooting.
With the win, WSU won 9 of 11 to end the regular season with a 17-13 overall record and a 10-8 mark in the American Athletic Conference. The Shockers clinched the No. 6 seed in the AAC tournament in Memphis next week and will play East Carolina at approximately 9 p.m. on Thursday in the opening round.
“You can’t go with 0-for-4 at that point,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “I go with every day in practice the ball coming out of his hand and what I think when I see that ball coming out of his hand.”
“Next play,” Dennis said, repeating his mindset. “The fouls and not making shots was a bad combination, but in basketball the next play can overshadow your last play.”
WSU needed a balanced scoring effort to offset two spectacular individual performances by Tulane on its senior night. Caleb Daniels made 11 of 17 shots and 12 of 14 free throws to score a career-high 36 points, while Samir Sehic tortured WSU’s big men all night for 20 points on 9 of 12 shooting.
The Shockers couldn’t match either of those efforts, but won the game through steady play from its two seniors, as Samajae Haynes-Jones and Markis McDuffie scored a combined 29 points, with timely baskets from Jaime Echenique (13 points) and Jamarius Burton (11 points, five assists) down the stretch.
In a way, it was stunning that the Shockers needed a buzzer-beater to escape with a win. Tulane had lost all 17 of its AAC games to that point and WSU appeared to be en route to pulling away when it took a nine-point lead into halftime.
But Tulane came out after halftime with perhaps its most inspired play of the season. The Green Wave thoroughly dominated WSU for the first 10 minutes of the second half, outscoring the Shockers 27-9 to put WSU in a nine-point deficit.
“I don’t know how that team hasn’t won a game yet,” Marshall said. “They fought and give (coach Mike Dunleavy) a lot of credit for getting them up to play. The way they’re playing, they could win some games in Memphis.”
In order to avoid an embarrassing loss, WSU started to play some of its best offense when it mattered most. Burton finished a three-point play, Haynes-Jones drilled a three and Burton completed another three-point play to trim Tulane’s lead to 60-55 with 7:42 remaining.
The Shockers reclaimed the lead with a 9-0 run highlighted by the play of freshman Erik Stevenson. In one 45-second stretch, he made a pair of free throws, forced a turnover on defense, then drilled a contested three-pointer. A pair of McDuffie free throws capped the run to give WSU a 64-63 lead with 5:28 left.
“It’s all about urgency with us,” McDuffie said. “When a team goes on a run, how do you handle it? I thought we handled it well. We fought back. We made the right plays down the stretch and we had different guys step up.”
But Tulane proved resilient, as Sehic and Daniels helped stake Tulane to a 70-66 lead with 3:54 left. WSU responded with a 7-0 run capped by a McDuffie drive-to-kick to Haynes-Jones for a corner three and a 73-70 lead with 2:23 left. Daniels immediately answered on the other end with a three of his own.
McDuffie matched a Tulane basket to tie the game, then after a Tulane turnover, WSU took a 79-76 lead with 52 seconds left when Echenique scored on the left block through contact and made his free throw.
Up three with time running out, WSU’s defense committed the cardinal sin of fouling as Rod Brown bumped Daniels on his way to the rim. Daniels made the basket and the free throw for the tie with 33 seconds left.
WSU held for the final shot and fired off a decent look with Haynes-Jones’ three-point attempt from straight on just long. But the ball was given back to WSU after an out-of-bounds Tulane player touched the ball during the scramble for the rebound. That set up Dennis’ heroics.
“Honestly, out of all of the shots I shot tonight that one didn’t feel like it was going in,” Dennis said.
The Shockers know their defense was spotty after allowing Tulane to make 49.1 percent of its shots, but to them all that mattered was they had picked up yet another win and even more confidence going into the postseason.
“In a year like this where there’s so many new guys to teach, they’re starting to sprout. There’s a little vegetation in the spring now,” Marshall said. “I know we’re going to spring forward (with daylight savings time), so maybe these guys sprung forward tonight. Maybe we can go in with some confidence into Memphis and win some games. We need to win four and we’re back in the NCAA Tournament.”
As for style points? Marshall isn’t concerned about those.
“Down in the history books it will say 82-79 Shockers,” Marshall said. “They finished 17-13 and won their fourth in a row on March 9, 2019 here at Tulane.”