Through the videos, hugs, dunks, cheers and scissors, Wichita State’s first senior day is really about setting up the second senior day, March 13.
The NCAA Tournament field is announced that day and five seniors want desperately to be included. The Shockers are confident that Saturday’s 74-58 win over Illinois State at Koch Arena helps. The NCAA selection committee can’t miss the past five victories, all by 16 or more points.
WSU (23-7, 16-2 Missouri Valley Conference) ended the regular season by hitting every target. The seniors starred in a revenge rout over the Redbirds (18-13, 12-6) that repaired some of the damage from two losses in early February. Zone defense no longer scare the Shockers. The game-deciding run came with Ron Baker on the bench with two fouls in the first half.
“I know we’ve done what we can do at a very high level,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “I think we’ve got to be in the tournament. It’s crazy if we’re not. This is a team that could win a national championship, if we get a couple breaks and we play well.”
WSU can make all that uncertainty disappear with three victories in the MVC Tournament. The top-seeded Shockers open quarterfinal play against No. 8 Loyola or No. 9 Bradley at noon Friday in St. Louis. The seniors plan on cutting down more nets on March 6 and locking up an automatic bid.
“We’ve got bigger and better goals that we’re all passionate about,” WSU senior Fred VanVleet said. “Our objective as a team is not leave it up to that and go win in St. Louis.”
If some of the MVC teams saw hope in WSU’s losses to Illinois State and Northern Iowa earlier this month, the Shockers spent the past 12 days restoring what they see as the natural order.
“This has been our conference for the past few years, and it wasn’t going to change because we lost a game,” VanVleet said.
As farewell moments go, it was hard to pick a favorite from the record-breaking senior class.
VanVleet’s long three-pointer in the first half? Evan Wessel ripping the ball away to start a break? A corner three-pointer by Baker or an Anton Grady jump shot?
Wichita State’s seniors turned Saturday’s game into a highlight film and fond farewell. If the finality of the moment hit them, they hid the feeling.
“Exactly the same,” sophomore Shaq Morris said. “I was thinking they would be probably a little more emotional, the last time they’re running through the tunnel. I guess when you’ve got that type of mentality, you just focus no matter what.”
VanVleet scored 16 points and handed out nine assists. Grady made 6 of 9 shots for 16 points. Baker added 10 points and Wessel grabbed eight rebounds. Senior Bush Wamukota played the final few minutes. The seniors exited the game in the final minutes to standing ovations. They paraded to center court with family to receive framed jerseys. Highlight videos showed their work on the court.
“Special night,” Baker said. “Lot of familiar faces as far as our family and friends here. We played for them and we played for our last game at Charles Koch Arena.”
MVC commissioner Doug Elgin handed over the regular-season trophy and the net on one goal came down.
The Redbirds may be the top challenger in St. Louis, but didn’t play like it for most of Saturday’s rout. WSU’s defense, much more aggressive than in the January meeting, tore apart Illinois State’s offense. VanVleet kept Illinois State’s Paris Lee out of the lane and limited him to six points on 2-of-10 shooting.
The Shockers forced 17 turnovers, leading to 24 points, and held the Redbirds to 38-percent shooting. WSU out-rebounded the Redbirds 40-33 and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, leading to 17 second-chance points. WSU’s work in the lane put the Redbirds in foul trouble from the start of the game and led to a 16-11 edge at the line.
“We got frustrated with some calls, and that played into it, too,” Illinois State forward MiKyle McIntosh said. “We just lost our head for a second and dug ourselves a big hole and couldn’t get out of it.”
Wichita State’s defense took hold midway through the first half, producing a flood of Redbirds turnovers, fast-break baskets and a constant roar from the crowd. And they did most of it with Baker on the bench.
Morris started the burst by stuffing McIntosh at the rim, early in the 28-6 run that gave WSU a 46-28 halftime lead.
WSU led 28-24 when the turnovers piled up for Illinois State. Wessel tore the ball away from Paris Lee, flipped it to VanVleet, who lobbed to Markis McDuffie for a dunk and a 32-24 lead.
After a timeout, Lee drove into the lane and threw a pass out of bound. After a jumper by Grady, the Shockers forced a jumpball turnover and Grady scored again for a 12-point lead.
VanVleet’s long three gave WSU a 39-24 lead and he celebrated by yelling toward his teammates and on the bench and the crowd responded.
“You feel energy and you feel the flow of the game,” VanVleet said. “As I’m dribbling up, it felt good and I let it go and it went in and the roof came off. It felt like that was a point for a huge dagger.”
The Redbirds cut the lead to 51-40 in the second half. Again, turnovers led the Shockers into a burst and they led 69-44 with 7:31 to play.
With a senior-night victory assured, Marshall soon began subbing to get his seniors one final salute from the crowd.