Wichita State’s seven-year run of playing in the NCAA tournament is officially over.
The Shockers erased a 13-point, second-half deficit to force a dramatic final three minutes, but ultimately fell 66-63 to Cincinnati in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament Saturday at the FedExForum.
Now WSU (19-14) will play the waiting game to see if its final six weeks (won 11 of final 14) will be enough to overcome its first three months to earn an at-large berth to the National Invitational Tournament. Cincinnati (27-6) will play Houston (31-2) in a rematch of last year’s AAC tournament title game on Sunday.
For now, the Shockers will feel the heartache of this one.
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After knocking off third-seeded Temple on Friday, WSU believed it could win the tournament title. It very nearly did when Samajae Haynes-Jones erased a 13-point deficit with a finger roll at the rim to tie Cincinnati with three minutes remaining.
Cincinnati took a 63-62 lead when Jarron Cumberland split a pair of free throws, then WSU tied it up after Jaime Echenique split a pair of his own free throws with 46 seconds left. The Bearcats took a 65-63 lead when Cane Broome drove to the lane and scored over the outstretched hands of WSU’s Markis McDuffie with 23 seconds left.
WSU initially attacked in transition, but called timeout with 9.1 seconds remaining. After the timeout, WSU funneled the ball to McDuffie, who went straight to the rim in an attempt to draw a foul. No call was made and McDuffie’s lay-up attempt missed. Cumberland made one more free throw and a half-court fling by McDuffie missed its mark.
WSU was again led by its two seniors, as McDuffie finished with a game-high 18 points and Haynes-Jones scored 17 with several important baskets during the comeback. No other Shocker reached double-figures.
When WSU appeared to be teetering on the edge of letting the game slip away, trailing by 13 points halfway through the second half, McDuffie and Dexter Dennis revived the Shockers with back-to-back three-pointers. When Cincinnati called timeout to stem the tide, WSU coach Gregg Marshall met his players on the court fist-pumping and shouting encouragement.
Haynes-Jones was brilliant in keeping the Shockers in the game, dicing up Cincinnati’s defense and finishing on an array of lay-ins. Cincinnati’s defense switches every screen and when Haynes-Jones got a big switched onto him, he would use his quickness to dribble around him and finish with finger rolls.
Haynes-Jones faked out Cincinnati big Nysier Brooks with a quick shoulder fake to get him off-balanced, then jetted by him and finished at the rim to erase the 13-point deficit and knot Cincinnati up at 62-62 with three minutes left.
WSU held a three-point halftime lead, but failed to protect it because it missed its first 11 field goal attempts of the second half. During that span, Cincinnati blitzed the Shockers 12-1 to take a 41-33 lead after five minutes.
What was more troubling for the Shockers was that Cincinnati dominated the first 11 minutes of the second half, stretching its lead to as many as 13 points, with the AAC Player of the Year, Cumberland, on the bench for the final seven minutes of that rally.
The way the first half played out was reminiscent of Friday’s first half against Temple. WSU was dominated on the glass, shot poorly, but made its free throws to somehow stay in the game. This time, the Shockers even took a 32-29 lead into halftime.
After falling behind 4-0, WSU reeled off a 12-2 run to establish an early lead. The highlight of the rally was a fast break when WSU made three quick passes to upgrade a good shot to a great one, as Haynes-Jones whipped the ball to Jamarius Burton in the corner. He was so open that he could dribble once, set his feet, then stroke in the three-pointer.
But Cincinnati’s defense sank its teeth into WSU and made life difficult for the next eight minutes, holding the Shockers without a field goal and forcing nine straight misses during that span. Meanwhile, the opposing center once again tortured WSU on the offensive glass.
Cincinnati center Nysier Brooks grabbed five offensive rebounds himself in the first half alone, as the Bearcats grabbed a total of 11 and outrebounded WSU by nine. The Bearcats took their largest lead of the half, 24-17, with 7:10 remaining.
That’s when the roles reversed: Cincinnati went ice cold from the field, which allowed the Shockers to spurt ahead.
Ricky Torres, who was shooting 7 percent on three-pointers, hit just his fourth triple of the season to end the shooting drought for the Shockers. Although WSU wasn’t scoring in a flurry, it was able to string together eight straight points over four minutes to take a 28-26 lead on a McDuffie pull-up jumper with 2:08 remaining.
It was Burton who provided the highlight of the first half just before halftime when he took a high ball screen, probed the defense, then turned the corner, took a giant stride and lifted off for a thunderous tomahawk dunk.
Cincinnati missed 11 of its final 12 shots of the half and missed all seven of its free throws, which stood out even more because the Shockers were 13 of 14 from the foul line.
Despite allowing 11 offensive rebounds, being outscored 9-0 in second-chance points, shooting 33 percent from the field and going eight minutes between field goals, Wichita State held a 32-29 halftime advantage.
Ultimately, Wichita State could not crack the code that is Cincinnati’s defense. For the third time this season, the Bearcats suffocated WSU and forced the Shockers into one of their poorest offensive showings of the season.
On Saturday, WSU shot 35.8 percent from the field and 32 percent on three-pointers. Across three games this season, WSU shot 33.5 percent from the field and 30.8 on three-pointers against Cincinnati’s defense.