Shockers make it look easy in opening round of AAC tourney. A bigger challenge awaits
If there was one game this season that still haunts Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, it was the Jan. 6 game against Temple at Koch Arena where the Shockers allowed an 11-point lead with less than four minutes dissipate in an eventual overtime loss.
Temple, the No. 3 seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament, isn’t exactly a favorable team to play this week. The Owls (23-8) are considered on the NCAA Tournament bubble and are determined to give their coach, Fran Dunphy, one more chance at March Madness before he retires at the end of this season.
But to Marshall and the Shockers (18-13), winners of 10 of their last 12 games, they don’t mind seeing Temple in Friday’s 8 p.m. quarterfinals matchup broadcast on ESPNU at the FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn. WSU defeated East Carolina 73-57 in Thursday’s opening round.
They want a shot at redemption.
“It’s probably one of the biggest debacles in my coaching career,” Marshall said. “I can’t recall losing a game like that in any other fashion. Just throwing the ball all over the gym and not making the plays. We kind of gave the game away, but Temple obviously did what they needed to do to take the game.
“We’ll have to try to turn that around. I’d love to have an (11-point) lead with 3:30 to go (Friday) night and see if we could hold on.”
The Temple loss remains a what-if moment of WSU’s season. What if the Shockers close out that game and move to 1-1 in AAC play? Would that have injected the Shockers with more confidence to avoid a 1-6 start in conference play?
After the loss, WSU freshman Dexter Dennis said it was one of the toughest locker rooms of the season.
“That game left a sour taste in our mouths for a long time,” Dennis said. “I can remember sitting in the locker room and I don’t think anybody said anything for awhile. Everybody was devastated. We knew we should have closed that game out.”
In a way, the Temple loss was part of the adversity and heartache the Shockers went through to become the team that they are today.
The players know there’s nothing to gain by dwelling on the loss, so they’ve tried to view it in the best light possible.
“That was definitely one of the lower points this season, but I do believe it kind of helped us down the stretch,” WSU freshman Jamarius Burton said. “We didn’t hold our composure down the stretch. We had a lead, and we gave it away. Since that game, we’ve done better down the stretch. We look at that game now as a learning experience.”
Since that game, WSU has won three games at the buzzer. Marshall isn’t convinced that equates to the Shockers being a better team down the stretch, but he does believe WSU has improved significantly since that Jan. 6 loss.
“We just melted, we melted,” Marshall said. “At that point in the year, that’s what this team was doing. Hopefully it’s a sign of the growth. I can’t tell you we’ll handle it any better (Friday), but my presumption is with the growth of this team and how we’ve matured and how we’ve not been turning the ball over like we did in the past, you would hope we could hold onto a lead like that. The biggest key is how can you get a lead like that again?”
Temple is a potent team. Shizz Alston (19.7 points) is one of the most talented scorers in the AAC, Quinton Rose (16.5 points) is a streaky scorer and Nate Pierre-Louis (13.4 points) might be the best on-ball defender in the conference.
In the first meeting, WSU’s two seniors, Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones, carried the load. They combined for 46 points, and McDuffie appeared to score the dagger, a three-pointer with 3:32 to play to put the Shockers up by 11. But WSU’s defense failed to register a stop on Temple’s final five possessions, while the Shockers proceeded to turn the ball over twice and miss all three of their shots in their final five possessions.
The players said there is some confidence to be gained knowing that for the majority of the game WSU out-played Temple. The Shockers know they can get a lead on Temple, now they have to prove they can protect it.
“Our biggest focus is playing a whole 40 minutes this time,” Haynes-Jones said. “When we played them back then, we weren’t close to playing a whole 20 minutes every half. But we’ve been doing that more lately, and I think we’re going to bring that same intensity (Friday).”
Haynes-Jones was excellent on Alston for the first 37 minutes of the game, but the Temple senior exploded for nine points in the final minute of regulation and overtime to propel the Owls to victory. WSU will have to do a better job of containing him this time around.
The Shockers should also be playing with desperation. First and foremost, they don’t want to be the team that ends the streak of playing in NCAA tournaments (currently at seven straight years for WSU). But if that doesn’t happen, then WSU still needs to build its best-possible resume for a potential NIT bid.
WSU has played in a postseason tournament for a decade straight under Marshall. A win on Friday over Temple would all but ensure the Shockers keep that going in some fashion.
“The biggest thing we’re focused on is just following our game plan,” Burton said. “Every time we’ve followed our game plan, we’ve had success. If everybody does their job and we’re all moving on one accord, everything will work out.”