This Wichita State team knows how to make a wire-to-wire victory as nerve-wracking as possible.
The Shockers led for more than 37 minutes of their 63-55 victory over Clemson on Sunday in a second-round game in the National Invitation Tournament but nearly allowed a 13-point lead to slip away with seven turnovers down the stretch.
After the lows WSU (21-14) has experienced this season, coach Gregg Marshall wasn’t too concerned with how aesthetically pleasing WSU’s fifth straight road win was. All he cared about was that the Shockers were about to hop on a plane to take them to Bloomington, Ind., to face the Hoosiers at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the NIT quarterfinals.
“If you would have told me in January we would have won five games on the road and it would be March 24th and we would still be playing in the NIT with a chance to go to Madison Square Garden,” Marshall said, “I would have bet you anything in the world that it’s not going to happen.”
Those memories seem like another season. Back when WSU lost its home-opener for the first time since 2001. Or the first time in two decades it didn’t win a road game before February. Or when it started 1-6 in American Athletic Conference play.
The Shockers won for the 13th time in their last 16 games and controlled a 20-win ACC team on the road. Regardless of whether or not the players believed back then that something like this was possible, they believe now ... and WSU is certainly not playing like a No. 6 seed in the NIT.
“We love each other, we’re committed to each other,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “We’re committed to playing this game and committed to finishing on a strong note.”
WSU could afford to make so many mistakes at the end because it played so well for the bulk of the game at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Jaime Echenique scored a game-high 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, tying career-highs with two three-pointers and three steals. Senior Markis McDuffie provided a steady 16 points and senior Samajae Haynes-Jones added 10, including the game’s biggest three, and 10 rebounds. Freshman Dexter Dennis finished with nine points and 11 rebounds but had maybe WSU’s biggest contribution with his defense on Clemson’s leading scorer, Marcquise Reed.
Reed scored a team-high 18 points, but Dennis turned him into an inefficient volume shooter. Reed, a third-team all-ACC player, struggled to find room to fire his mid-range jumpers and Dennis’ 6-foot-5 frame played a significant role in Reed going 5-of-20 from the field.
WSU forced Clemson into its second-worst shooting performance of the season — the Tigers made just 28.3 percent of their field goals. Without a 23-for-31 performance from the foul line, Clemson scored 32 points.
“We knew Reed has a really great mid-range game; he’s a great shooter and a great player,” said Dennis, who played 38 minutes and covered Reed the entire game. “We wanted to force him into as many contested jump shots as we. could. A lot of players in our conference (Cincinnati’s Jarron) Cumberland, (Houston’s Corey) Davis make tough shots. Sometimes you play good ‘D’ and they still make shots. You just have to make it as hard on them as possible.”
All of that good work in the first 30 minutes was nearly wasted when Clemson went into desperation mode and applied a full-court press. WSU’s ball-handlers did not perform well against it. The Shockers turned it over on back-to-back possessions the first two times Clemson pressed.
In total, WSU committed seven turnovers in the final seven minutes, but Clemson was only able to score five points off those turnovers.
“Just bad decisions,” Marshall said. “We obviously didn’t make great decisions. Instead of calling timeout or getting it to an open receiver, we just panicked and threw the ball away a couple of times. (Clemson) gets credit for that and they were down and they were a little bit desperate and you have to do that when you’re down.”
Haynes-Jones committed what could have been the most costly one when he had the ball poked out from behind and he grabbed Reed to prevent the fast break. After a review, officials ruled it to be a flagrant foul. Clemson made both free throws to trim WSU’s lead to 58-55 with 1:17 remaining, then had a good look on an inside shot that missed.
Given a second chance, Haynes-Jones redeemed himself the next time down. WSU gave him the ball at the end of the shot clock and Haynes-Jones came up big once again, drilling a step-back three-pointer that all but secured the win, extending WSU’s lead to 61-55 with 30 seconds left.
“We’ve been in this position a lot of times and I feel like when we get down in those situations, we’ve got to do something big,” Haynes-Jones said. “It was me who took the shot and I had to. do something big. I was just taking what they gave me. When they took away the drive, I stepped back and created enough space so I could get my shot off.”
Echenique played like a man possessed in the first three minutes of the second half. Not only did he draw two offensive fouls on Clemson’s starting center, Elijah Thomas, promptly sending Clemson’s second-leading scorer to the bench, he finished three right hooks in the lane to help give WSU a 38-25 lead.
“I was really locked in since (Saturday),” Echenique said. “My mentality was I didn’t care what I did on offense, I really wanted to lock (Thomas) down. I wanted to limit his touches because I know when a big guy doesn’t get as many touches as they want, we get anxious and try to do other things.”
The first half saw some of Echenique’s most inspired play of the season. The 6-foot-11 junior was locked in defensively and came up with three steals, tying his career-high, by deflecting and intercepting post-entry passes.
On the offensive end, Clemson came out with an aggressive defense to combat WSU’s ball-screen offense that essentially double-teamed WSU’s ball-handler and clogged up the lane. That left Echenique slipping his screens and heading to the perimeter, where he drilled two three-pointers in the first half and finished with a game-high 10 points. Until Sunday, Echenique had made two threes in a game only once in his career.
WSU began creating separation halfway through the first half when Haynes-Jones made back-to-back jump shots to push the lead to 19-12 with 8:29 remaining. Echenique’s second three-pointer gave WSU its largest lead of the first half, 24-16, but Clemson trimmed the deficit to four points with 2:44 remaining and the crowd became engaged.
That’s when Dennis delivered a crucial three to stop Clemson’s momentum and send groans all through Littlejohn Coliseum, as he restored WSU’s lead to 29-22. Clemson coach Brad Brownell became so upset with the officials that he earned himself a technical foul, although the Shockers couldn’t capitalize on the extra free throws and took a 29-24 lead into halftime.
“You’ve got to fight through adversity and fight through the crowd and you have to want it more,” Marshall said. “I thought our guys did that. We played hard.”
It was a superb defensive effort by WSU, holding Clemson to 55 points on 69 possessions. The Shockers also held a slight rebounding advantage, 38-34.
“That just shows the potential of how good this basketball team can be in the future,” McDuffie said. “We can play against anybody if we play the right way.”