Wichita State coach, players talk about NIT loss to Lipscomb
Erik Stevenson isn’t usually one for emotions, but the Wichita State freshman couldn’t help but show the heartbreak of a basketball season ending.
The Shockers were on a roll and believed it was their destiny to end on a win. They had won 14 of 17 before Tuesday’s semifinal game against Lipscomb at Madison Square Garden and they led by 11 points, just seven minutes away from playing for a National Invitation Tournament championship.
But then a drought came at the worst possible time for WSU: 0-for-10 shooting, five turnovers, and just three points in the final 16 possessions of the game. Stunned, the Shockers watched Lipscomb rally past them for a 71-64 victory.
Stevenson sat in a chair in the locker room with a towel over his head, absorbing the moment. He wanted to remember this pain, feel every last tinge of heartbreak to store it in his memory and use it as motivation to never feel this way again.
After the game, WSU coach Gregg Marshall told his players to take a week or two off to recharge their bodies and get away from the game to prepare for the grind of the offseason. Stevenson said he might take Wednesday off, but that’s it.
“This didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth and I’m sure it didn’t leave a good taste in the mouth for the other guys,” Stevenson said. “We’re going to be in the gym getting better, getting stronger, faster, more athletic so we can be in a Final Four next year in the NCAA Tournament.”
In the locker room, the underclassmen each took their time to pay their respects to the team’s two seniors, Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones. They hugged them, told them they loved them, and thanked them for being the veteran leaders this team needed them to be this season.
If it wasn’t for them, the underclassmen wouldn’t know what it was like to end the season on such a winning tear.
“We’re even more hungry,” WSU freshman Jamarius Burton said. “We were on the outside looking in this year with the big tournament that we all want to be in, so I think this will spark us for next year. The experience that we gained this season will only help us going forward.”
What an introduction to the Division I level for WSU’s eight newcomers. They experienced the disappointment of becoming the first WSU team to lose its home opener in two decades. They felt the lows of starting 8-11 and 1-6 in the American Athletic Conference. Then they know what it takes to overcome adversity and turn around a season.
“It was dark,” Marshall said. “It was tough. It was not good, late January. These kids just continued to work. Those two seniors continued to lead and the freshmen started to believe.”
In the final month of the season playing elimination basketball, WSU survived on the road at Tulane, beat a desperate Temple team to essentially punch its ticket to the NIT, and went toe-to-toe with Cincinnati. And after starting the season losing the first six road games by a combined 101 points, WSU won three straight road games as the underdog in the NIT, including knocking off Indiana and silencing 10,000-plus fans at Assembly Hall.
“Oh, there’s no doubt that we got so much better,” Stevenson said. “Everybody knows it. We were 8-11 at one point and finished 22-15. We played all the way into April. We didn’t want to be here, we wanted to be in the big dance, but we’re here and we made the most of it. Tonight just wasn’t our night.”
“It definitely brought us closer together, just being able to lace them up and play together for another three weeks,” Burton added. “At one point we were terrible on the road, but we stuck together and grew. Us being on the road and gaining experience like that is only going to make us more confident heading into next year.”
Losing McDuffie and Haynes-Jones, the two leading scorers this season, will be difficult for WSU to replace. But the Shockers are optimistic that redshirt sophomore Teddy Allen can help fill that void, as well as incoming freshman guard Tyson Etienne.
WSU returns Burton, Dexter Dennis and Jaime Echenique from its starting lineup. Stevenson and junior guard Ricky Torres also played major minutes off the bench. Asbjorn Midtgaard blossomed the second half of the season, redshirt freshman Rod Brown had flashes off the bench, and freshmen Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler and Morris Udeze also return at center.
There will be a shuffling of roles for next season. Echenique and Torres will be the team’s lone seniors and likely inherit the leadership roles. It will be a different look, especially with Allen expected to take a large workload.
But this is a core that the Shockers feel like they can win with moving forward. They took a dip this season and their string of 25-win seasons with an NCAA Tournament appearance came to an end, but WSU is motivated to return to that next season.
McDuffie’s message to his teammates after the game? The offseason starts now and it’s time to put in the work. Even though the senior is leaving, he’s never been more invested in this group.
“I’m going to try to continue to be a leader to them like I was when I was playing with them,” McDuffie said. “They’re my brothers forever now. I’ve been with these guys every single day. Whenever they need me for advice, I’m here. After I watch their games, I still might coach them up. These are my guys forever.”