It never occurred to Markis McDuffie that Friday night could have been his final time in a Wichita State uniform.
To think about that would be to think about failure, so he shut out all negativity before he played in the biggest game of his senior season, a rematch against Temple in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament at the FedExForum.
The night before he would play his finest game as a Shocker, McDuffie sat in his hotel room talking late into the night to his father. McDuffie had grown frustrated with his shooting the past month, but found comfort in his father’s calming words.
“It’s going to come,” Derek McDuffie promised his son. “Just take it slowly.”
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On the biggest stage to date with the season and potentially his career on the line, McDuffie scored a career-high 34 points to power No. 6 seed WSU past No. 3 seed Temple 80-74. McDuffie made 9 of 19 field goals and 12 of 13 free throws, while registering his second career double-double with 12 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end. And for good measure, McDuffie tacked on two assists, two blocks and three steals while playing 38 minutes.
It was the 11th victory in the last 13 games for the Shockers (19-13), who will play No. 2 seed Cincinnati in the AAC semifinals around 4:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.
“I want to thank my teammates for looking for me and trusting me through this process,” McDuffie said. “I haven’t been shooting the ball the way I’ve wanted to lately, but I’ve always tried to put my team in the best position to win. I’m just glad I was finally able to get going.”
What added to McDuffie’s performance was how he elevated an average-at-best showing from the rest of the Shockers to beat a NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent. Freshman Dexter Dennis scored 19 points on 6 of 11 shooting, but the other WSU players combined for 27 points on 10 of 34 shooting.
Temple had a balanced scoring attack and actually out-shot WSU from the field. On this night, McDuffie was more than an equalizer. The game simply boiled down to WSU won because it had McDuffie and Temple did not.
“He wasn’t going to lose,” WSU senior Samajae Haynes-Jones said of McDuffie. “He put us on his back tonight.”
“He is a leader in every way,” WSU center Asbjorn Midtgaard said. “Seeing him go that hard every play, it made every one of us want to play even harder for him. This is his last season and he’s been to the NCAA’s every year and that’s our goal. We want to do this for our seniors and that’s the way it should be.”
It was a complete performance from McDuffie.
He showed the ability to create offense for himself early. He uses his 6-foot-8 frame and high release well and connected on back-to-back three-pointers over strong contests from the defense.
McDuffie also proved he doesn’t always need to start with the ball to score. He pulled down a career-high seven offensive rebounds, which he manufactured into eight points by converting four put-backs.
McDuffie puts so much pressure on defenses that defenders are often over-eager to challenge his shots, which resulted in McDuffie drawing six fouls. It’s another trick of his to manufacture points from the foul line, but it only works if you can capitalize on the free shots. McDuffie cashed in on 12 of 13 shots against Temple, including six straight to end the game.
“Markis McDuffie was playing like a man possessed,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “The guy just showed he can play at whatever level. After he gets his degree, he’s going to play for pay and he’s going to make a lot of money at whatever level. I hope it’s the NBA. Tonight he had to open some eyes with the way he competed and shot the basketball and rebounded.”
But McDuffie’s excellence wasn’t limited to just offense. He made one of the game’s biggest plays on defense with WSU clinging to a 73-68 lead with less than three minutes left.
WSU had just missed a shot and Temple’s Quinton Rose got free. When Temple rebounded, J.P. Moorman thought he had the over-the-top pass to Rose for an easy transition basket.
And it would have been, if not for McDuffie. The WSU senior was three steps behind Rose when Moorman lofted the pass over WSU’s defense. But McDuffie’s long strides closed the gap and, like a free safety in football, he outstretched his hands and intercepted the pass.
“That’s just me being a senior,” McDuffie said. “I’m going to play all out because nobody knows when it could be over. One of the assistants told me before the game that you’re only as good as your last performance. So I want to make mine a great one.”
Watching from the stands, Derek McDuffie beamed with pride.
“He knew he had to come up big for them to win,” he said. “Knowing the magnitude of the game and this point in the season, he was ready to put it all on the table. I’m proud he was able to stay level-headed and keep playing his game.”
McDuffie carried the Shockers for the first 20 games of this season, while WSU’s first-year players transitioned to a new level. Given time, those players have since stepped up and been vital to WSU’s turnaround.
Now the belief is stronger than ever that the Shockers are capable of beating any team.
“The month of March is crazy,” WSU freshman Erik Stevenson said. “We’re 80 minutes of good basketball away from going to the big dance.”
“Every person in this room believes we can win this thing,” Haynes-Jones said. “There’s no doubt.”
WSU earned the right to believe that from its improved play the last six weeks, but it has reason to believe it more after McDuffie showed what he is capable of Friday.
“I’ve been working so hard this season and so have my teammates,” McDuffie said. “I just want to continue to give my team my best. If we can keep coming together as a team, I truly believe we can do something special.”