When Anton Grady chose Wichita State as his transfer destination last spring, he did so with the goal of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Coaches saw him as a player who filled the need for an experienced post scorer, one whom the Shockers could build an offense around, one that could win games in the NCAA Tournament.
Everybody’s expectations were on the table.
It took longer than expected for them to look real, largely because of the scary fall and spinal concussion Grady suffered in November. But there is plenty of time until March, which is when the Shockers need the post scoring of Grady to reach their NCAA Tournament goals. After he scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a 67-64 victory over Evansville, Grady appears capable of adding that threat to WSU’s offense.
“That’s best he’s played for us,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “That’s exactly why we recruited him.”
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If you want intrigue in the Missouri Valley Conference race, both teams did their job on Wednesday at Koch Arena. Wichita State (9-5, 3-0 Missouri Valley Conference) won its 39 straight home game and defeated the Aces (13-3, 2-1) for the sixth straight time.
Fred VanVleet added 16 points and a season-high nine assists for WSU. The Shockers made 5 of 9 three-pointers in the second half, including crucial baskets by Zach Brown and Evan Wessel in the final minutes.
Jaylon Brown led the Aces with 18 points. Balentine added 14 on 6-of-17 shooting.
The rematch is Jan. 31 and the teams picked first (WSU) and second (Evansville) in the preseason poll lived up to their billing Wednesday.
Grady’s growth from accessory to leading role came at the best possible moment, against a tough and experienced opponent with its own talented big man in senior Egidijus Mockevicius. Grady, and sophomore Shaq Morris, made it an even fight on a night Evansville pushed the Shockers to the final seconds.
Grady made 8 of 13 shots in 27 minutes, his most action since missing four games with the injury. He worked hard to get position in the lane against Mockevicius and scored on a variety of hooks and jump shots. It was his most complete effort since the injury and perfectly timed.
“I’m a no-excuse guy, so people can say it’s the injury…,” Grady said. “It just felt like there was a good rhythm, good timing and God has a plan. My teammates did a great job getting me the ball.”
Grady made Evansville pay for not helping off the Shockers guards. Evansville’s scheme calls for Mockevicius to play behind his man and use his height to alter shots, so Grady knew he could get the ball in good spots. It was up to him to score over the MVC’s top shot-blocker.
“He’s just doing what we know he can do,” VanVleet said. “He hasn’t really showed it as much, obviously the injury set him back a little. This is what we envisioned.”
WSU built an eight-point lead three times in the first half before settling for a 32-27 lead. It went ahead by nine points twice in the second half, including 50-41 with 8:48 remaining. The Aces, however, refused to fold.
“Our guys hung in there, showed some grit,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “We’ve been here before and we haven’t done that. I thought we turned it up a little bit, which is a real positive.”
Zach Brown’s three-pointer with 19 seconds remaining gave WSU a 67-62 lead and almost subdued the Aces. But Brown missed the front end of a one-and-one with 6.4 seconds remaining and WSU’s victory wasn’t secure until Evansville’s D.J. Balentine traveled trying to get off a last-second shot.
Zach Brown’s basket completed a 10-point burst that won the game for WSU. It started when he dove on the floor to grab a loose ball after Grady missed the front end of a one-and-one with 3:17 to play. That possession led to Wessel’s three and a 60-57 lead. After two Aces foul shots, Grady scored to put WSU up 62-59. VanVleet’s layup made it 64-61 with 1:01 to play.
VanVleet, running the pick and roll with his customary precision, found Brown in the corner for the game-breaking shot. Brown had missed his only previous shot.
“I heard the countdown, that the shot clock was going,” Brown said. “I was ready. I just caught it and shot it.”