Gregg Marshall looked at the stat sheet. Disbelief. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet reacted similarly. Nobody does that to Wichita State.
“We got out-rebounded by nine,” Marshall said. “I’m not sure that’s happened in a long time. Try to find the last time we got doubled up on the offensive glass.”
The answer is Kentucky, in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Drake is decidedly not Kentucky. The Bulldogs, however, used a surprising rebound edge to execute a plan that threatened 16th-ranked WSU until the final minutes on Wednesday at the Knapp Center. A Baker-fueled finish lifted the Shockers to a 66-58 win that produced relief as the primary emotion.
“We were lucky to get out of here with a win,” Marshall said.
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The rest of the Missouri Valley Conference no doubt watched with great interest on this opening day. Drake shot poorly (33.3 percent), made only five three-pointers and allowed WSU to shoot 52.9 percent from three-point range. Those are not numbers that typically produce an upset, yet the Bulldogs gave it a good run.
If Drake (3-10, 0-1 MVC) can do it, so can others. WSU’s 22nd straight MVC win and 10th straight on the road did not come easily or with any style points.
“Even after the first half it was like, ‘We can actually play with these guys.’” Drake center Jacob Enevold said. “And like coach said, they were ripe to be beat. We just didn’t quite have it.”
WSU (11-2, 1-0) turned to Baker at closing time. He scored 13 straight Shocker points and 15 of their final 18 points in the final 8:19. He started with two free throws for a 50-44 lead. He made back-to-back threes and WSU led 59-49 with 5:22 to play. When Drake cut the lead to 59-55 — helped by a four-point possession — Baker made two more free throws. Up 62-57, Baker’s drive and basket with 1:05 to play provided a seven-point cushion.
The Bulldogs broke when VanVleet’s defense forced freshman Reed Timmer to travel, turning the ball over with 45 seconds to play. While Baker missed two free throws, Drake never got clsoer than six points in the final 30 seconds.
Baker finished with 23 points, 19 in the second half. He made 2 of 5 shots in the first half. In the second half, he made 6 of 11 shots and 2 of 4 three-pointers. On drives to the basket, he took advantage of Enevold’s slow feet by zipping past him by using a screen. VanVleet picked up his third and fourth fouls, 29 seconds apart, and went to the bench with 11:06 remaining. He didn’t return until 2:45 remaining, putting the ball in Baker’s hands.
“Coach wanted me to attack,” Baker said. “When I attack, I feel like I'm a pretty good player. When I settle and take questionable shots and be a little passive, I struggle.”
Tekele Cotton handled the offense in the first half. He scored 17 points, 15 in the first half.
“(Cotton) carried us in the first half,” Marshall said. “Thank goodness he did. He really came out smoking hot. Then Baker was really good in the second half. Ron made some good decisions. He came off the ball screens aggressively. When they crowded him, he was able to drive and get to the foul line.”
The Shockers needed those superb individual performances because Drake mucked up everything else. The Bulldogs made it a half-court grinder with careful ball-handling — a season-low seven turnovers kept WSU from running for easy baskets. Then the Bulldogs ruled the glass, grabbing 38 rebounds to WSU’s 29 and 12 offensive rebounds to WSU’s six.
“They dominated us on the glass,” Cotton said.
Kentucky, with a team of NBA Draft picks, outrebounded WSU 32-23 and 10-4 on the offensive backboards in March’s classic NCAA Tournament game. Enevold grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds, five on offense, and scored 12 points. He tortured WSU on the pick-and-roll and used his size to get good position. WSU played without reserve center Shaq Morris, left home at Marshall’s discretion because of poor practices. His bulk, and five fouls, might have been useful against Enevold.
“The big boy gave us trouble down low,” Baker said. "That's something we're going to have to work on. If you eliminate half of their offensive rebounds, it's a totally different story.”
Without turnovers and second-chance points, WSU had to score against Drake’s changing half-court defenses. The Bulldogs shortened the game by running their offense for 25 seconds before looking to score. The Shockers shot 41 percent from the field. Drake shot 33 percent and the teams combined to shoot 51 foul shots.
“The first thing we wanted to do was handle their pressure,” Drake coach Ray Giacoletti said. “I thought we did a really good job. I can only remember one time against their full-court press we turned it over. Maybe twice.”
VanVleet scored seven points in 25 foul-limited minutes. Center Darius Carter also played 25 minutes and scored four points on 1-of-8 shooting. With two top players ineffective on offense, WSU rarely looked smooth on offense. Carter touched the ball on three possessions to open the game, an effort to get him rolling, to no avail.
“If you play your best for 40 minutes, you can live with the result,” VanVleet said. “Obviously, we didn’t do that. Ron came up big. Tekele came up big. Me and Darius (Carter) got to do a better job. Those guys carried us.”
Wichita State never led by more than six points in the first half, a bad sign considering Drake’s miserable shooting. The Bulldogs missed 19 of their 26 shots, yet stayed close with a three-point edge at the line and a five-rebound edge. Normally prone to turnovers, they committed three in the first half. The Bulldogs patiently dribbled away 20 seconds or so, then tried to score and the plan kept them close.
The Shockers struggled against Drake’s half-court defense, changing from zone to man and mixing in a press to slow the game. WSU shot 38 percent from the field and grabbed only two offensive rebounds.