Wichita State waited until everyone was secure in their Koch Arena seats Saturday before sparking the kind of celebration 10,506 wanted to have.
The Shockers let Illinois State hang around. Heck, the Redbirds even had a 15-12 lead after their fifth three-pointer.
But that’s really when the party started for five WSU seniors playing in their final home game. Behind the leader of the pack, point guard Fred VanVleet, the Shockers went on a 36-13 run over the rest of the first half to douse any spark Illinois State, which had won two straight over the Shockers, might have had.
Senior day ended like senior days are supposed to end — with a win. Wichita State 74, Illinois State 58, after which there was an hour-long celebration that ended when WSU coach Gregg Marshall took the final snip of a net that symbolized the Shockers’ third straight Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship.
“Obviously,” Marshall said later, “we have bigger goals. But it was very nice to cut down those nets with those wonderful seniors.”
VanVleet, Ron Baker, Evan Wessel, Anton Grady and Bush Wamukota are likely finished at Koch. But, like the rest of the Shockers, they don’t want this season to end for a few more weeks.
And if it was just about the eyeball test, would anyone doubt the Shockers? They’re 23-7, peaking at the right time, battle-tested and oozing with All-America experience.
It was interesting that most of Wichita State’s first-half blitz happened with Baker, the Lennon to VanVleet’s McCartney, on the bench with two fouls. He picked up No. 2 with 9:27 to play in what was then a two-point game.
Seven minutes later, it was a 19-point game.
Conner Frankamp replaced Baker and scored eight first-half points. And VanVleet was vintage VanVleet, impacting the game in every way imaginable. His lob to Markis McDuffie, which the freshman turned into an acrobatic dunk, gave the Shockers a 32-24 lead and raised the noise to a dangerous level for us older folks.
VanVleet said it was one of his favorite plays as a Shocker, but credited McDuffie with making it so.
“It was a terrible pass,” VanVleet said. “When I let it go, I knew for sure it was going to hit the backboard or go out of bounds. But (McDuffie) made it look good.”
VanVleet had another lob pass for a dunk to his old buddy Shaq Morris, whom he’s ridden hard for three seasons to make Morris believe in himself.
As VanVleet was awash in the postgame glory, Morris, a sophomore, said he thought to himself how much he’s going to miss the player who has picked on him more than anyone else.
Morris agreed with the analogy that he’s been a baby bird about to be set free by its mother. That’s a big bird now.
There’s no doubt that the rest of the Shockers have been fortunate to play with VanVleet and Baker, and that it hasn’t been too bad having Wessel around, either.
Every team needs a dirty-work specialist and 10 minutes of watching Wessel play makes me long for a shower.
He was at it again Saturday, with four offensive rebounds among his eight overall, two assists and two steals. OK, he hasn’t been shooting well. But when a player gives up personal safety to chase down a loose ball, who cares?
Grady has spent only this season at WSU after transferring from Cleveland State. He suffered a spinal concussion in November and has had ups and downs. But he was special Saturday, with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
I don’t know who is going to knock this team out — heck, it might be the NCAA Tournament selection committee if the Shockers don’t win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis next week — but it’ll take a haymaker.
The Shockers, and especially the seniors whose legacies are so rich, want to be around a while.
Illinois State, which beat Wichita State in the MVC Tournament semifinals last season, is one of those lurking Valley teams. The Redbirds probably thought they had the Shockers’ number before Saturday.
“I think they’ll still have the same confidence,” VanVleet said. “I don’t know that anything we do changes that. We don’t brag or boast that we’re the greatest team ever, but this has been our conference for the past few years and that wasn’t going to change because we lost a couple of games this year.”
Senior day was special with the coronations and the adulation. But it’s over now and the Shockers set their signs on other goals.
They’re developed a mean streak of late, sweeping through the past five games by an average of 26.4 points. Marshall let his foot off the gas Saturday while attempting to get his seniors out of the game at the right time so that the crowd could acknowledge them.
This is a good basketball team playing at its highest level and with the kind of a chip on its shoulder you’d probably have to be a senior to understand.