Learning to win ugly is a valuable trait for a college basketball team.
Wichita State’s first lesson of the season came much earlier than expected on Saturday when the Shockers survived with a 69-63 victory over Texas Southern at Koch Arena.
It’s not often a team can manage a win with 24.2 percent shooting and enduring a 13-minute stretch without a field goal and with 21 straight misses. But WSU defended and rebounded well and manufactured 34 points at the foul line to escape with a victory that moves it to 2-0 this season.
But there’s no way to gloss over the ugly stats: WSU missed 50 of 66 field goals and finished with just six assists, failing to generate open shots consistently.
“If you can win ugly when you’re not playing your best, that’s good,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “It certainly beats the alternative, which is losing.
“We did not play well and we understand that. They understand that. This will be a great week of practice because we should have their full and undivided attention.”
Sophomores Erik Stevenson (6 of 18) and Dexter Dennis (5 of 11) were the only Shockers to make more than one basket on Saturday. The other eight WSU players combined to go 5 of 37.
Stevenson scored a career-high 22 points to go along with seven rebounds, while Dennis poured in 19 with seven rebounds and freshman Grant Sherfield finished with 13 points. What did all three have in common? They all reached the foul line consistently, as the trio combined to make 27 of 31 free throws.
“A lot of our shots weren’t falling, so the next-best thing you do is try to get to the free-throw line,” Dennis said. “Then you can make some easy free throws.”
In a game where the Shockers were favored by 20 points, they entered the final five minutes tied at 53-53 with the team from the Southwestern Athletic Conference. It wasn’t until Dennis drilled a corner three-pointer for a 56-53 lead that WSU gained separation.
Sherfield followed with four straight free throws to extend WSU’s lead to 60-55 with 4:05 remaining. Texas Southern trimmed its deficit to 62-59 and had a possession in the final 90 seconds, but WSU registered the defensive stop and Dennis and Sherfield added three straight free throws to close the game out.
Give Texas Southern credit for pushing the Shockers in a game where the heavy underdogs shot 38.2 percent, missed 10 free throws and committed 20 turnovers.
“I thought our guys did a great job of following our detailed scouting report,” Texas Southern coach Johnny Jones said. “We were sound in what we were doing defensively. We knew who their shooters were, and we made sure we were there on the catch and not giving them easy chances. That’s a team that generally is a very good executing team, so we wanted to make it tough on them, and I thought our defense did a good job.”
Every time a potential WSU rally began in the second half, Texas Southern silenced the crowd with a clutch make.
When WSU erased a four-point deficit early in the second half, John Jones drilled a three to restore the Texas Southern lead. Stevenson scored five straight points to give WSU a 36-33 lead, only for Tyrik Armstrong to swish a three-pointer to bring the Tigers back.
After trading baskets three times, Morris Udeze tied the game at 45-45 on a put-back with 8:59 remaining, only for Jones to once again come through with back-to-back difficult shots to give Texas Southern a 50-47 lead with 7:47 left.
But Dennis and Stevenson combined for 30 of their 41 points in the second half and their offense helped propel the Shockers to victory.
Wichita State’s ice-cold first half began in earnest. Sophomore Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler, making his first career start, scored on a put-back on WSU’s second possession to tie the score at 2-2.
But over the next 13 minutes, the Shockers’ offense reverted back to their winter struggles from last season. It didn’t matter from where WSU shot, it was a clank. During its streak of 21 misses, WSU missed seven layups, 10 mid-range jumpers and four three-pointers. Clank, clank, clank.
“It’s painful, it’s tough when you can’t put the ball in the basket,” Marshall said. “That’s the objective of the game. Boy, we had some bad shots. We had some shots we should have made. We had some poor execution that took us out of shots.”
When WSU ran its ball-screen offense, the screens weren’t set crisply and the ball handlers created no separation. When WSU tried its motion offense, there was no crisp ball movement or cuts being made. The combination led to almost all of WSU’s shots ending in contested, low-percentage looks.
WSU doesn’t keep records for things like most misses and lowest field-goal percentage in a half, but there’s a good chance WSU’s 32 misses and 13.5 percent shooting in Saturday’s first half would chart.
“I think our guys found out if they don’t play well, then you’re leaving it up to chance whether Texas Southern knocks down a few more shots or Texas Southern gets a few more whistles,” Marshall said. “If the ball bounces their way a couple more times, they win the game.”
On the injury front, freshman Noah Fernandes (left foot) made his Shocker debut after missing eight weeks due to injury and finished with one rebound and one assist in eight minutes.
Sophomore guard Jamarius Burton did not play on Saturday and had his right ankle in a walking boot. Senior center Jaime Echenique (left hand) missed the game due to injury and is not expected back until the end of the month.