Fred VanVleet sat on the bench. Gregg Marshall glared at Doug Elgin and yelled at the officials. Outnumbered Loyola fans, wearing their trademark scarves, chanted “LU, LU” as their team out-played its No. 8 seed.
None of it made much sense, considering top-seeded Wichita State’s dominance of the Missouri Valley Conference’s lower-level teams.
Then Ron Baker banished bracket disaster and carried Wichita State to a 66-58 win over Loyola on Friday in the quarterfinals of the MVC Tournament at the Scottrade Center. That, on a bad day for the Shockers that almost turned into another St. Louis nightmare, made sense.
“Special players make special plays,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said, before describing a postgame embrace with Baker in which he told him “Dang you” with a tone of respect. “That kid hit some daggers.”
Wichita State (24-7) puts its NCAA Tournament fate in jeopardy for about 37 minutes. Then the Shockers made plays. A burst of inspired defense and shot-blocking by Shaq Morris held the Ramblers (15-17) scoreless for 3:42. Baker made two three-pointers and pressured Loyola into a shot-clock violation for his starring role in a 15-3 run that ended the game and saved the Shockers from a lot of awkward questions about the NIT.
“It was a strange game in many ways,” Marshall said, after registering his displeasure with Elgin, the MVC commissioner, and officials Tom Eades, Paul Janssen and Randy Heimerman. “We made plays. We made stops. We’ll move on to Saturday.”
WSU’s NCAA Tournament hopes likely would not have withstood a loss to a team ranked No. 240 in the RPI. The victory gives it time to regroup for what are sure to be a tougher test in Saturday’s semifinal against fourth-seeded Northern Iowa. The Shockers know they must play better to advance.
They will need more than 20 minutes from VanVleet, whose two first-half fouls ignited WSU’s frustration with the officiating. He picked up a charging call 18 seconds into the game. He stripped the ball from Loyola’s Montel James later and was called for a foul the Shockers vigorously protested. His absence contributed to nine first-half turnovers.
With VanVleet on the bench more than usual, the Shockers committed 17 turnovers, their most since 21 in an overtime loss at Seton Hall.
“It’s hard to get a rhythm any time you have foul trouble,” VanVleet said. “I can’t blame anybody but myself. I didn’t play very good.”
Baker scored 25 points, making 5 of 8 threes, one short of his career high. He scored 15 in the second half and made all three of his threes. His off-balance three with 4:27 to play, as he tried to draw a foul, cut Loyola’s lead to 52-51. His three, curling off a screen at the top of the key, gave WSU the lead for good, 57-55 with 1:54 to play.
VanVleet scored 10 points, eight on free throws, five in the final 1:12. Morris blocked six shots, his career-high and a tournament record for the Shockers, and didn’t attempt a shot.
Devon Turk led Loyola with 16 points.
Down 55-51, WSU started its rally with a basket by Markis McDuffie and free throw by Baker. Up 57-55, Baker harassed the Ramblers into a shot-clock violation that led to two free throws by VanVleet and a 59-55 lead with 1:12 remaining. Moser said the play, which started with an inbounds pass to Montel James and ended with Milton Doyle shooting after the buzzer, was designed to get James a shot.
“He’s supposed to catch it and shoot it,” Moser said. “I thought he had a look, and he kind of froze.”
It was the second inbounds play, Moser said, where execution failed his team late in the game. The Shockers, after numerous problems throughout the game, had no such issues in the final minutes.
Morris protected the four-point lead by walling up and stoning Turk on a drive, leaving him to weakly flip a shot that bounced off the rim. Morris rebounded to start WSU’s run of stops and free throws that sealed the game. The Shockers made 7 of 10 free throws in the final 52 seconds.
“It stings,” Moser said.
Not as much as a loss would have for the Shockers. They survived foul trouble, ball-handling issues and a strong effort by the Ramblers.
“Uncomfortable game,” Marshall said. “We have to play better.”
Northern Iowa vs. Wichita State
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis
Records: UNI 20-12, WSU 24-7
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
TV: CBSSN (Cox 260, DirecTV 221, Dish 158, U-Verse 643)