Wichita State fans had to be on the edge of their seat screaming at the television when the Shockers turned the ball over seven times in the final seven minutes trying to protect a lead against Clemson in a second-round National Invitation Tournament game on Sunday.
Many will remember the Shockers barely holding on for a 63-55 victory over the Tigers at Littlejohn Coliseum to advance in the NIT to face Indiana on Tuesday, one win away from heading to Madison Square Garden.
But lost in the wild finish was how well WSU played to build a cushion large enough to, as WSU coach Gregg Marshall phrased it, “withstand the debacle at the end.”
The Eagle is here to refresh that memory. After watching the film, here are the five most important reasons why the Shockers were able to take down a 20-win ACC team on the road to advance to the NIT quarterfinals.
1. Outstanding scouting-report defense on Clemson star Marcquise Reed
WSU held Clemson to 55 points, its third-lowest output, and 0.80 points per possession, its fourth-lowest efficiency mark of the season. The Tigers shot 28.3 percent from the field, including 14.3 percent on three-pointers. The only other team that’s been able to accomplish something similar to that against Clemson’s offense was Virginia, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The first thing opponents have to decide when defending Clemson is how to handle guard Marcquise Reed, who averages 19.5 points on good shooting percentages, in the pick and roll. There’s nothing more Reed loves to do than to dribble around a ball screen and pull up for a mid-range jumper. According to Hoop-Math.com, nearly half (49 percent) of his shot selection derives from two-point jumpers.
WSU could have gone many directions in how it defended Reed. The Shockers could have put a smaller defender on Reed like 6-foot senior Samajae Haynes-Jones to match quickness with quickness. But after studying the film, WSU assistant Isaac Brown, who was in charge of the game plan, envisioned 6-5 wing Dexter Dennis giving Reed problems with his length and athleticism.
“He’s really good at driving and shooting those step-back jumpers over the top of guys,” Brown said. “So we wanted to put our most athletic guy on him and we told (Dennis) to try to contest every shot. You can’t do a high-school contest. You’ve got to be the second man off the floor and then go contest it.”
It was a decision that might have made the biggest impact in WSU’s victory, as Dennis, a freshman, was largely responsible for a miserable outing from Reed, a senior. Reed finished with 18 points, but did so on 5 of 20 turnovers and three turnovers, as he posted his worst offensive rating (73) of the season.
Upon inspection, Reed was 2 of 12 shooting when Dennis was the one sticking out his long limbs to contest the shot and the WSU freshman smothered four of Reed’s shots.
“He was dynamite with his positioning and his length bothered Reed,” Marshall said. “I love Reed’s game. He reminds me of (Kansas State’s) Barry Brown with how he gets to the mid-range and can score it. But tonight, because of Dexter’s length, it was difficult for him.”
Clemson ran Reed through so many screens, Dennis spent most of the game chasing him over the top and scrambling to contest the shot from behind or from the side when Reed rose for a jump shot. He hit a pair early in the game on Dennis, but the freshman wasn’t rattled.
He didn’t know any better. To him, it felt like just another night in the American Athletic Conference, where he guarded elite shot-makers like Cincinnati’s Jarron Cumberland, Houston’s Corey Davis and Memphis’ Jeremiah Martin.
“It kind of did, I’m not going to lie,” Dennis said of the comparison. “It was like, ‘OK, you’ve got to guard this star tonight. They average this and this and this.’ They put me on them and see what I can do.
“We knew Reed has a really great mid-range game. He’s a great shooter and a great player. Sometimes you play good ‘D’ and they still make shots. You just have to make it as hard on them as possible.”
There were multiple times Reed challenged Dennis head on, either in transition or from the top of the key. These are plays that Dennis was committing fouls on almost every time early in the season. On Sunday, the freshman rejected a third-team all-ACC player nearly every time. He played 38 minutes and committed a single foul.
That kind of in-season growth is just one of many success stories of the Shockers in the past two months where they have won 13 of their past 16 games.
“He was a good defender all along, but he was always putting his hands on people,” Marshall said. “Instead of reaching out like he’s a fork lift or Edward Scissorhands, he’s putting his hands up and using that length to contest shots.”
Like any great defense, it wasn’t just a one-man job on Reed.
While it is true Dennis was the primary defender on Reed, the defense from senior center Jaime Echenique was also crucial in slowing down Reed when he came off of ball screens and attacked the rim.
When Dennis wasn’t able to fight around the screen, it was Echenique’s responsibility to contain Reed. That meant keep him in front for as long as it took for Dennis to recover and then to also contest his shots at the rim. Echenique executed this flawlessly three times and forced Reed into misses all three times.
Some will look at the box score and chalk it up to Reed missing shots he normally makes or WSU catching Clemson on a cold-shooting night. That might have been true for other players, but the film shows the tandem of Dennis and Echenique were a direct cause for Reed’s poor shooting.
“Honestly, we’re just doing what is expected of us,” Dennis said. “What we go through every day in practice is to try to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. I think that’s what we were (Sunday).”
2. Jaime Echenique “balled out” on both ends
Echenique scored a game-high 18 points on 7 of 8 shooting and tied career-highs with a pair of three-pointers and three steals to go along with two blocks.
But not even those numbers show Echenique’s true impact. A better indication is to examine the plus-minus that showed WSU outscored Clemson by 26 points in Echenique’s 21 minutes and that the Shockers reached their offensive peak (1.15 points per possession) and defensive peak (0.45 points per possession) with Echenique on the floor.
Senior Markis McDuffie encapsulated the performance in four words: “He just balled out.”
What makes Echenique’s performance so special is that he was asked to do so many different things on the court and rose to the occasion and did them.
The first challenge for Echenique was to play the key cog in WSU’s ball-screen defense on Clemson. Not only was he responsible for containing dribble penetration through the heart of WSU’s defense, but he also had to worry about recovering in time to cover Clemson’s rolling center and second-leading scorer Elijah Thomas, a 6-9, 245-pound senior.
Echenique was masterful at this dual coverage against Clemson. He forced a turnover on the game’s first defensive possession and tied his career-high with three steals in the first half alone, discouraging Clemson from including him on defensive plays in the second half.
“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 next challenge came with Echenique finding a way to be the counter to Clemson’s aggressive ball-screen defense. When Echenique went to set a screen for WSU’s ball handler near the sideline, Clemson’s on-ball defender would level himself horizontally with the ball handler to prevent him from using the screen, while the screener’s defender would jump in front of the ball handler to essentially form a double team. The roll down the middle of the lane wasn’t available because Clemson sent a weak-side defender to the free-throw line and gambled WSU couldn’t rotate it fast enough to get off an open three.
It was an excellent defensive game plan devised by Clemson’s Brad Brownell and one that played the odds on Echenique, who hadn’t made a three-pointer in a month and had only taken four threes in the previous eight games.
But Echenique defied the odds twice by aborting the screen when Clemson double-teamed and hovering wide open at the top of the key, swishing two first-half three-pointers to give WSU breathing room on offense. The second three pushed WSU’s lead to 24-16 late in the first half.
“He looked beautiful with the ball coming out of his hand,” Marshall said. “The way they were guarding the ball screens, he was able to release on a short roll and was standing there wide open. You’ve got to make those to make them pay and he did, two out of three.”
And when he sensed Clemson’s defense begin to lock up WSU on the perimeter, Echenique started the second half demanding the ball inside. He took the first three touches on the left block, used a dribble to back his defender down, then went up with the same right hook that fell three straight times during a 9-1 blitz in the first three minutes of the second half to establish a 13-point lead.
In whatever way WSU needed Echenique, he delivered.
“My mentality today was just really locked in,” Echenique said. “I was going for everything and to make every basket. I think that mentality really helped me out.”
3. WSU withstands its flurry of turnovers with one crucial stand
WSU knows it did not close out the game in the most aesthetically-pleasing way possible. But the Shockers also know what it feels like to be 8-11 and to lose six straight games on the road, so they aren’t too picky with how their road wins look.
Clemson applied a full-court press 10 times in the final seven minutes of the game. It forced WSU to turn the ball over five times. Before Sunday’s game, Clemson had only pressed on 42 possessions the entire season and had forced nine turnovers.
It was like watching the same disastrous play on a loop: WSU would in-bound the ball to a corner, Clemson would trap and WSU would panic and throw the ball away. Repeat and recycle five times.
“Just bad decisions,” Marshall said.
“It kind of hit us out there a little bit,” Dennis said.
“It got a little crazy,” McDuffie admitted.
The most costly turnover was the one Haynes-Jones, a senior, committed with 1:17 remaining and WSU in front 58-53. He had the ball poked out from behind and in desperation to prevent a fast break, grabbed Reed from behind. After a review, officials ruled it to be a flagrant foul, Reed made two free throws to trim WSU’s lead to 58-55, and Clemson had its only possession of the second half with the chance to tie WSU.
On the game’s most important possession, it was WSU center Asbjorn Midtgaard, who had a rough defensive outing for his first 13 minutes, that delivered for WSU in the clutch.
Clemson tried taking advantage of him by putting him in a ball screen with Reed, but the 7-foot sophomore played the ball-screen defense wonderfully, backpedaling to contain a Reed drive and also allowing Reed’s defender time to recover and take away the pull-up jumper.
After the ball rotated and Clemson funneled it into Thomas on the left block, Midtgaard was momentarily caught out of position on the high side of Thomas on the block. Instead of panicking and lunging at Thomas for a sure foul, Midtgaard kept his composure and extended his arms high above his head to force the 6-9 Thomas to try to finish over him.
The contest altered Thomas’ shot, as it clanged off the rim on the near side and the rebound fell into Midtgaard’s hands. WSU maintained its three-point cushion and was able to run even more time off the clock. After its flurry of turnovers, this defensive possession was when WSU averted a full-on crisis.
“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.”
4. ‘Big Shot Samaj’ back at it again
After nearly costing his team with a flagrant foul, Haynes-Jones desperately wanted to redeem himself.
After hitting two game-winners for WSU this season, Marshall felt like he had more than earned the right to have the ball end in his hands the very next possession with WSU clinging to a 58-55 lead as the clock dwindled under 40 seconds. A miss and Clemson would have another chance to cut into the lead or even tie, but a make could all but seal the victory.
“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,” said Haynes-Jones, who was 3 for 14 shooting with four turnovers before his final shot. “It was me who took the shot and I had to do something big.”
Haynes-Jones dribbled in front until seven seconds were left on the shot clock, then tried to take his defender, 6-8 senior David Skara, off the dribble to his left, but Skara beat Haynes-Jones to the spot and walled off his drive with three seconds left to shoot. That usually spells disaster for many players when their first option is taken away with not much time left for a counter.
But Haynes-Jones kept his composure, dribbled between his legs and drifted backwards. Meanwhile, Skara, clearly anticipating another attack, shifted his momentum going backward when Haynes-Jones put the ball between his legs. That move caught Skara off-guard just enough to buy Haynes-Jones the time and the space to launch a 23-footer just over his out-stretched reach that splashed through the net as the shot clock expired and with 32 seconds left for a 61-55 lead.
“Just taking what they give me,” Haynes-Jones said. “When he took (the drive) away, I stepped back and created a little more space so I could get my shot off. That was a big play.”
To Clemson coach Brad Brownell, that was what separated his team from the Shockers on Sunday.
“At the end of the day, you can try really hard and compete, but you have to have guys that can jump up and make a basket in clutch situations,” Brownell said. “The game really ended when (Haynes-Jones) made a three over David Skara with one second left on the shot clock. That’s just a guy jumping up and making a tough, tough shot. That’s the difference between winning and losing. You have to have guys that are able to do that.”
5. Dexter Dennis with another well-rounded performance
Dennis’ superb defensive effort was already detailed above, but the freshman did much more to help extend WSU’s season.
On top of his three blocked shots and lock-down defense on Clemson’s leading scorer, Dennis added nine points and 11 rebounds, the fourth time this season he’s grabbed double-digit boards.
Most of the rebounds were the result of WSU’s big men boxing out to allow Dennis to swoop in from the perimeter and secure the rebound. But there were also a handful that Dennis doesn’t get without his unique blend of determination, athleticism and size.
“I just tried to do the best I could,” Dennis said, deflecting the credit to his teammates.
Dennis also showed off his versatility on offense. His first basket of the game came when he beat his defender on a back-door cut and Haynes-Jones whipped the pass inside to him. Dennis showed off his athleticism when he jumped, caught the pass in the air, twisted and laid the ball in to turn a normal lay-in into an impressive alley-oop.
Later in the first half, when Clemson had narrowed WSU’s lead to four points, Dennis halted the momentum by drilling a three-pointer on the wing to silence Clemson’s crowd and push WSU’s lead to 29-22.
But Dennis’ biggest shot of the game came down the stretch when WSU was clinging to a 52-45 lead. Jamarius Burton passed out to Dennis on the perimeter near the end of the shot clock, but the pass was outside of Dennis’ body and he had to jump to catch it.
That usually takes a shooter out of their rhythm, but Dennis came down, gathered himself, got his feet set and shot over a late contest to rattle home a long two-pointer to give WSU a 54-45 lead.
Since he wasn’t a big scorer, his offensive efforts may have been overshadowed in the game. But to his teammates, Dennis’ two-way performance was instantly recognized as special for any player, let alone a freshman.
“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.”