Shockers make it look easy in opening round of AAC tourney. A bigger challenge awaits
It wouldn’t be accurate to say any one play led to Wichita State’s 73-57 victory over East Carolina in the opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament Thursday night at the FedExForum.
The Shockers, who have now won 10 of their last 12 games, led for 35 minutes and led by double figures for the final 23 minutes to earn a rematch with Temple in Friday’s quarterfinals.
But if there is one takeaway from Thursday’s rout of East Carolina it was one play midway through the first half when Rod Brown dived to steal the ball, Jamarius Burton dived to save it, then Dexter Dennis capped the sequence off with a three-pointer that put WSU up by six points with still more than 29 minutes left.
It was just one winning play easily lost within a game full of them. But plays like that matter more to these Shockers, a young team desperate to meet the Play Angry standard set by their predecessors.
“That’s Shocker basketball,” Burton explained. “That’s what gets us fired up.”
Here’s how the play came together:
There was tremendous scouting-report defense by WSU redshirt freshman Rod Brown on East Carolina’s best player, Jayden Gardner. With just under nine minutes left in the first half, ECU tries to use Gardner as a decoy to get him the ball at the top of the lane with an angle to drive.
But Brown sniffs out the play. When Gardner pretends to set a screen in the lane, only to pop out to the perimeter, Brown is there waiting for him with proper denial defense, which nearly leads him to a steal. He doesn’t get it, but it takes away what Gardner wants and he decides to pass the ball around the perimeter.
Gardner follows the pass to set a ball screen, then rolls for a post-up on the left block. Again, Brown delivers fundamentally sound defense. He hard hedges to force the ball handler to pick up his dribble, then jumps back to Gardner.
East Carolina passes to the left wing, clearly looking to funnel the ball to Gardner for the post-up. But Brown is making this difficult by playing in front of Gardner with his arm extended, making the ball handler think if they really want to try to lob a pass that high over the top with WSU’s help-side defender looming in the paint.
Tyler Foster, the ball handler, gives up with hope and instead opts for the safer pass, a bounce to Gardner more to the left corner to take him away from the basket. Except Brown spoils this plan by using his outstretched arm to swipe at the ball and deflect the pass.
It created a loose-ball situation in the corner, which sends a signal to Brown’s mind to immediately get on the floor. It’s a mindset that was created last season during Brown’s redshirt year by WSU seniors Rashard Kelly and Zach Brown in practice.
“Now I try to anticipate every single loose ball and offensive rebound,” said Brown, who grabbed a career-high nine rebounds, including five on the offensive end, in 18 minutes. “I had to try to box Rashard Kelly out all of last year and that was so hard. Any time I took my eyes off him, he would beat me. But that made me a better player. I feel like I’m way more physical now.”
With this mindset, Brown dives on the floor, Gardner doesn’t, and Brown secures the steal for the Shockers and flips it up to Burton.
“I try to play with the mindset that every loose ball is mine,” Brown said. “Every second I’m out there, I try to play really, really hard.”
Before the game on the white board, WSU coach Gregg Marshall emphasized winning loose balls. Burton said this message was engrained in his memory when he had the ball immediately poked out and it squirted free to an East Carolina player waiting for the ball with open hands.
Burton could have conceded the turnover. He could have let teammate Samajae Haynes-Jones try to retrieve it. Instead, Burton sprinted after the ball and lunged for it. Again, WSU was first to the floor and Burton recovered the loose ball and flipped it up to Haynes-Jones to retain possession.
“You see your brother sacrifice and dive on the floor like that and it makes you want to do the same,” Burton said. “Our emphasis was to win 50-50 balls and I saw an opportunity to win a 50-50 ball, so I had to go after it.”
ECU’s defense scrambled to set up on the other end, but forgot to match up with Dennis. The freshman sharpshooter was able to take his time spotting up behind the three-point line, catching and releasing a clean look from straight on.
Dennis said after watching two of his teammates make hustle plays to keep the play alive, he locked in even more to try to deliver the punctuation. Sure enough, Dennis’ three-pointer splashed through and East Carolina coach Joe Dooley called timeout to stop the momentum.
“You can just sense how big of a momentum-shifter those plays can be,” Dennis said. “Everybody is into it. We have guys diving on the floor. The bench is into it. Once I caught it, I knew I had to knock it down.
“(Marshall) calls those winning plays. When we make a lot of those, we normally win games. Coach talks about them a lot and that’s something us younger guys are starting to. do more.”
WSU can be encouraged that it was three freshmen involved in this winning play. Brown with the first dive, then steal; Burton with the next dive; then Dennis with the three-point dagger.
And Dennis is correct: the more Play Angry-type plays WSU has, the more likely it wins. That was Marshall’s takeaway after the game about the play.
“That was a big play,” Marshall recounted. “We need to continue to make those. (Friday) is going to be a hotly-contested game. Those Temple kids are tough. They grind and they’re going to try to take the ball from you. You’re going to have to have a little dog in you. You’re going to have to be tough.”
It wasn’t clear for much of this season if WSU had that in them.
But with each passing game, the Shockers are proving they have the toughness and confidence required to win in March.
“We know that in these games it could come down to a possession or two sometimes,” Burton said. “Obviously (Thursday) it didn’t, but it sometimes does. That’s why we try to give maximum effort each and every possession. You never know when you could need that possession back.”