Shockers make it look easy in opening round of AAC tourney. A bigger challenge awaits
Wichita State accomplished everything it could have wanted in its first game in the American Athletic Conference tournament on Thursday night at FedExForum.
The sixth-seeded Shockers easily handled 11th-seeded East Carolina in a 73-57 victory, beating the Pirates for the third time this season. Although the final stats won’t show it, WSU shot well, defended well and dominated the rebounding battle when it mattered most to win for the 10th time in its last 12 games and advance to an 8 p.m. quarterfinal Friday against third-seeded Temple.
It’s a tantalizing matchup, one that pits a team in WSU (18-13) desperately trying to extend its postseason streak against one in Temple (23-8) desperately clinging to its spot on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. In the only meeting between the teams this season, Jan. 6 at Koch Arena, Temple erased an 11-point deficit with less than four minutes remaining to force overtime and ultimately win 85-81.
“We lost that game and we did a good job, but we didn’t get the result that we wanted,” WSU junior Jaime Echenique said. “It is a really talented team and a physical team. Everything will be determined (Friday), so I hope we do a good job.”
After dispatching the Pirates by 16 and 17 points in the two regular-season meetings, WSU played its most complete performance on Thursday and led by double-digits for the final 23 minutes. The Shockers made 38.1 percent of field goals, although that number was closer to 45 when they began subbing out their starters. WSU dominated the glass to out-rebound ECU 44-32, which included 17 offensive rebounds. The Shockers also made 20 of 27 free throws.
Senior Markis McDuffie scored a team-high 15 points for Wichita State, despite making just 2 of 6 shots, thanks to 11 of 12 shooting at the foul line. Freshman Dexter Dennis added 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting, while Echenique (14 points, nine rebounds) and Asbjorn Midtgaard (10 points, seven rebounds) combined for 24 points and 16 rebounds.
“We were very workmanlike tonight, building the lead to double-digits in the first half and then ultimately over 20 in the second half,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Then we were trying to finish the game and not tax these guys too much physically in terms of minutes, and we were able to do that. But I think the key was our bigs, getting the ball inside and being very effective.”
Despite a hot-shooting start by ECU, the Pirates finished shooting under 40 percent for the third time this season against WSU’s defense. ECU ended up making 39.2 percent of its field goals.
It was actually a competitive game for the game’s first 10 minutes when East Carolina came out and made seven of its first eight shots to stay with the Shockers. But WSU always had the lead because of a defense that forced seven early turnovers. Still, as the clock passed the first 10 minutes, WSU’s lead was just 15-14.
The Shockers began to pull away when they started to fully utilize its size advantage inside with centers Echenique, Midtgaard and Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler. The trio combined for 12 points in the first half, as WSU made 11 of 15 two-pointers compared to just four of 15 three-pointers.
WSU reeled off a 7-0 run after Midtgaard finished inside, Dennis drained a three and Samajae Haynes-Jones finished a layup after a steal for a 22-14 lead with 7:37 remaining. ECU clawed back to within four, 24-20, but the Shockers had another run ready to extend the lead.
McDuffie was fouled on a three-pointer and made all three free throws, then freshman Erik Stevenson gave the sea of yellow fans who made the trip to Memphis something to be excited about by connecting on back-to-back deep three-pointers. The last, which gave WSU a 33-20 lead, forced ECU to call a timeout and left Stevenson tongue-wagging to the delight of Shocker fans.
“To see the fans’ support and I have been a part of it for four years, so I’m not surprised at all,” McDuffie said. “But I know these guys are, considering it is their first time experiencing an American Athletic Conference tournament and it helps us. Before the game starts, they all surround us and support us and show us a lot of love and it gives us a lot of energy before the game. That’s how amazing this Wichita State community is.”
After taking a 39-27 lead into halftime, WSU was able to extend it to 20 points by the first media timeout. The Shockers pieced together an 11-0 run to bury the Pirates early in the second half.
The 11-0 run featured highlights from Haynes-Jones, who took a pass after a Ricky Torres steal, went behind his back, then finished through contact at the rim for a three-point play, and from Rod Brown, who tracked down an offensive rebound for a put-back. By the end of the rally, WSU led 60-34 with 13:39 remaining.
WSU out-scored ECU 23-4 on second-chance points and 14-2 in points off turnovers.
“Obviously Wichita wore us down in the paint and we didn’t respond very well,” ECU coach Joe Dooley said. “We gave up a lot of points in the first half off of second shots and off of our turnovers, and that was the difference of the game, especially in the first half.”
WSU’s cushion never dropped under 20 points until the final two minutes, which allowed WSU coach Gregg Marshall to rest his starters and play end-of-bench players Eli Farrakhan, Brycen Bush and Jacob Herrs for most of the final eight minutes.
As a result, no one played more than 25 minutes and McDuffie was able to play a season-low 22 minutes with Haynes-Jones logging just 23 minutes.
“We have to go out there and handle business,” McDuffie said. “This is something that I’m used to. I’m used to being in a conference tournament and playing in the playoffs, used to being a Wichita State basketball player and winning in a winning program. So it doesn’t put any pressure on me personally. It makes me cherish the moments I have left.”