Wichita State improved to 2-0 on Saturday, but it wasn’t pretty in a 69-63 victory over Texas Southern at Koch Arena.
In a game where the Shockers were favored by 20 points, they were tied with Texas Southern entering the final five minutes and relied on the play of Erik Stevenson (career-high 22 points), Dexter Dennis (19 points, seven rebounds) and Grant Sherfield (13 points) to pull away late.
WSU went 13 minutes between made field goals in the first half, which included 21 straight misses, and finished the game shooting 24.2% from the field.
Here are five takeaways from the performance:
1. Erik Stevenson finally sees the ball go in
It had been exactly 31 games and 343 days since Erik Stevenson had seen six of his shots drop in a game.
While it took him 18 attempts on Saturday — Stevenson’s 33% shooting actually raised WSU’s team percentage — Stevenson’s six field goals against Texas Southern was the second-most of his career and the most since he made seven shots against Baylor on Dec. 1, 2018.
Stevenson’s sweet shooting stroke and his shooting percentages have yet to align in his time at WSU. He made just 27.8% of his three-pointers last season and had missed all seven tries beyond the arc this season.
When he ended WSU’s 13-minute field goal drought in the first half with a swish from deep, Stevenson was visibly injected with confidence. He spoke after the game about how much that shot meant to him.
“Nobody realizes how big that was for me besides myself,” Stevenson said. “It’s been a mental game ever since last year. This summer it’s been all mental. I felt confident going into our exhibition game and didn’t hit a shot in that one. Didn’t hit a three in the opener. So it was back to mental games.
“When I saw it go in, I don’t know if you guys saw it, but I took a deep breath and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m back. Okay, I’m back.’”
Stevenson is still in a constant battle with knowing when to pull a three-pointer and knowing when to holster the shot and work the ball around. Like all of WSU’s players on Saturday, he forced some bad shots that he’ll want to have back after watching the film.
But he also made five of his six shots and scored 18 of his career-high 22 points in the second half when WSU was desperate for points.
“Erik just needs to let the game come to him a little more,” Marshall said. “He tries to force it sometimes. But without him, we don’t win. He made some big shots for us.”
Even during WSU’s 14-4 close to last season, Stevenson’s shooting never picked up. He managed to do other things to help the Shockers win, but he averaged just under two field goals per game during that stretch on 33.6% shooting.
Maybe seeing six of his shots go through the net and scoring a career-high in points will jump-start Stevenson’s shooting for the Shockers. If anything, Stevenson’s shooting on Saturday helped save the Shockers a victory in early November.
“We’re a young team and if anything, (Saturday) was a step forward because we learned how to win ugly,” Stevenson said. “We weren’t hitting shots, missing free throws in the first half, missing easy layups. That shows we bunkered down on the defensive end and got stops when we needed it. We kept fighting and that’s the biggest thing from this game to me.”
2. WSU’s guards manufactured points when shots didn’t fall
Watching WSU’s offense this week was like watching two different teams.
On Tuesday, WSU had a quick trigger from the outside and launched 31 three-pointers with 50 of the team’s 71 shots classified as a jump shot.
On Saturday, WSU tried to attack the rim constantly and only attempted 16 three-pointers, as more than half of the team’s shots (36 of 66) came inside the paint.
Not that the Shockers had success shooting on Saturday from any location. WSU missed 25 of its 30 jumpers and missed 25 of its 36 shots at the rim.
“I’m looking at the stat sheet and there’s no way we should have won that game,” Erik Stevenson said afterward.
The answer was at the free-throw line, where the Shockers made 34 of 42 shots to generate nearly half of their offense on Saturday. WSU’s three double-digit scorers — Stevenson, Dexter Dennis and Grant Sherfield — combined to make 27 of 31 free throws.
“It’s always kind of a mindset to get to the line and get easy ones,” Stevenson said. “Shots just weren’t falling. Even guys who made shots, the percentages aren’t very good. We tried to be aggressive, get to the paint, get to the free throw line and see the ball go in.”
The box score would lead you to believe Sherfield struggled mightily. He finished 1 of 10 shooting, failed to make an assist pass in 30 minutes and had three turnovers.
But WSU doesn’t win without Sherfield drawing 10 fouls on Texas Southern, which allowed him to shoot 14 free throws and score 11 of his 13 points at the foul line.
In the final five minutes with WSU in the bonus, Sherfield made three aggressive drives that put the pressure on Texas Southern’s defense and ended up earning free throws on all three. Sherfield made six straight free throws to help WSU close out the game.
And when WSU needed to close the game out — up 62-59 with under a minute left — Dennis didn’t settle for a jumper when he was given a clear-out isolation at the free-throw line. He took two hard dribbles to his right, spun back left and drew the foul.
“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.”
Dennis has carved out a reputation among opponents as a dangerous catch-and-shoot threat from the outside. He showed progress on Saturday of becoming more of a threat off the dribble, especially in transition where he drew three shooting fouls by attacking the back-pedaling defense.
Dennis finished 7 of 8 from the foul line, a career-high in free throw makes for the sophomore.
3. The devil is in the details for WSU’s offensive woes
A more extensive look at what’s wrong with WSU’s offense is coming soon, but the reductive version is that the Shockers are struggling with the details of their offense right now.
Two examples stand out in particular, both on bread-and-butter plays in WSU’s offense that were botched and resulted in no points on Saturday.
The first play is a simple back screen set by a guard at the free-throw line on whoever is defending WSU’s center that typically frees the center for a catch deep in the paint and an easy finish. WSU actually scored on this exact play late in the first half when Erik Stevenson set a good screen that allowed Asbjorn Midtgaard to catch deep, drop his left shoulder and go up for an easy basket.
But WSU had no such luck early in the first half when it ran the same play for Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler. Dexter Dennis drilled Poor Bear-Chandler’s defender on the back screen and Stevenson gave Poor Bear-Chandler an entry pass that should have been an easy basket.
Only Poor Bear-Chandler didn’t plant himself under the basket like Midtgaard did. He kept going past the paint, which allowed the defense to recover when he caught the pass. The play was seared in Gregg Marshall’s memory afterward.
“Instead of stopping right underneath the basket, where he had a layup or dunk all by himself, he continued and ran out of the lane,” Marshall said. “Then he tells me he didn’t have an angle when caught the ball. Because he didn’t stop where he was supposed to stop. Those are the things we’ll have to clean up.”
The second example of WSU botching one of its favorite plays came late in the first half. The play starts with a player starting a ball reversal on the perimeter, then using a back screen to cut to the basket. When the ball is reversed, WSU can sometimes find the cutter for an easy lay-in like it did in Tuesday’s season-opener when Dennis found Stevenson for an alley-oop layup.
On the same play on Saturday, Stevenson rifled a pass inside to an open Wade. But the angle wasn’t the same as Tuesday’s successful connection and Wade caught the ball further away from the basket.
Instead of coming down with the pass and going up strong for either a basket or a foul, Wade rushed himself and tried to recreate the Dennis-to-Stevenson alley-oop play and forced up a wild shot that didn’t even touch the rim.
Little details like that are what the Shockers will spend the next week ironing out in practice.
“It’s painful, it’s tough when you can’t put the ball in the basket,” Marshall said. “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.”
4. Marshall plans to ‘reshuffle’ his deck of centers
The absence of starting center Jaime Echenique, who is expected to be out until the end of November with a broken left hand, has been glaring through two games for WSU.
Marshall has been left with a three-man rotation between junior Asbjorn Midtgaard and sophomores Morris Udeze and Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler. The effectiveness of that three-man rotation has been lacking.
The trio of centers have combined for more fouls (20) than points (15) so far this season. They’ve only managed to grab nine defensive rebounds in 82 combined minutes and they’ve missed 15 of 21 shots — many of those coming right at the rim.
“Until Jaime gets back, I’m going to reshuffle the deck,” Marshall said. “I’m going to go with the guy who is playing the best in practice that week.”
With Midtgaard struggling and Udeze still recovering from missing time with a concussion, Poor Bear-Chandler registered his first career start on Saturday and showed signs of promise.
Of his three options, Marshall has said Poor Bear-Chandler is probably the weakest defender. The sophomore took a step toward shedding that reputation on Saturday, turning in perhaps his best defensive effort of his career with two blocks, two steals and one charge taken.
When WSU absolutely needed a stop — with Texas Southern looking to cut into a 62-59 lead with under 90 seconds remaining — Poor Bear-Chandler delivered outstanding individual defense to get the Shockers the stop. His man caught the ball at the top of the key and pump-faked. Maybe the freshman Poor Bear-Chandler would bite on the fake, but this year he stayed glued to the ground, shuffled his feet, challenged the shot at the rim to force a miss and even grabbed the rebound to complete the possession.
Poor Bear-Chandler also grabbed arguably the game’s most important offensive rebound with 5:01 remaining, as that extended possession ended in the Dexter Dennis go-ahead three-pointer that broke a 53-all tie. WSU never trailed after that shot.
He’s not an effective screener like Midtgaard yet and his offensive punch has yet to translate, but Poor Bear-Chandler showed signs of encouraging improvement. His pick-and-roll coverage was much better and he stayed active on the glass, leading to seven rebounds with four offensive ones.
5. Fernandes makes his season debut at the right time
With Jamarius Burton, last season’s starting point guard, in a walking boot after spraining his right ankle in Tuesday’s season-opener, WSU could have been in trouble with its point guard depth behind freshman starter Grant Sherfield.
But WSU received a boost at the right time with the season debut of 5-foot-11 freshman point guard Noah Fernandes, who had missed the previous two months of practice due to a bone bruise in his left foot. After practicing on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday, Fernandes was cleared to play in Saturday’s game.
Before the injury, Marshall said that Fernandes was battling head-to-head with Sherfield for the starting point guard role. That version of Fernandes wasn’t there on Saturday (he logged one rebound and one assist in eight minutes), but Marshall said he’s hopeful that he can return to that form with more practice time.
“He did not, to me, look like the same guy we saw nine weeks ago, but it can’t be expected that he would look the same,” Marshall said. “He looked a little half-step slower because he’s really quick and fast and today it looked like he was trying to get his sea legs back. But I’m glad he’s back. Until (Burton) gets back, those two freshmen will be running the point.”
Even without his full speed burst, Fernandes had promising stretches of on-ball defense where he contained dribble penetration. He had the best post entry pass of the game, which led to an Asbjorn Midtgaard layup, and although that was his lone assist, Fernandes found open shooters for two three-pointers that would have counted if they were made.