The two stars of Wichita State’s greatest basketball moments came to St. Louis to break down this tournament like they had almost every other obstacle over four seasons.
The Shockers sent Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet and a 19-point margin of victory over 18 Missouri Valley Conference games to Scottrade Center. They sent more than 4,000 fans, with the promise of more with each victory, passing by a Baker billboard on their way to the arena.
Once again, this seemed like the time for top-seeded Wichita State to grab hold of the MVC Tournament like it has every other aspect of MVC basketball. Once again, it ended with disappointment.
Wichita State faces a tense week of what-ifs and bracket watching after Saturday’s 57-52 overtime loss to Northern Iowa in the semifinals. The Shockers (24-8) now must wait a week to find out if they receive one of 36 NCAA Tournament at-large spots.
Instead of cutting down nets and planning for a Selection Sunday party, Baker and VanVleet took the blame for the loss. WSU exited early for the third time in their career, twice as the top seed and twice losing to No. 4 seeds.
“I wasn’t able to step up … get a basket when my team needed me, and lot of that is on my shoulders,” Baker said.
“Anytime I don’t play well, our team usually doesn’t do well,” VanVleet said.
Fourth-seeded Northern Iowa (21-12) will try to repeat as tournament champion on Sunday against second-seeded Evansville. The Panthers, who broke WSU’s 43-game home win streak in February, won 11 of 12 games since starting 2-6 in the MVC.
UNI guard Wes Washpun scored 20 points, 12 in the second half, and controlled the end-game by working off screens, forcing the Shockers to switch and creating mismatches.
The struggles of Baker and VanVleet will take center stage, but the Panthers handed out equal-opportunity doses of problems. The Shockers shot 31.7 percent, 2 of 24 from three-point range for a season-low 8.3 percent.
WSU led 10-0 with 12:31 to play in the first half. UNI won the rest of the game 57-42.
“The more shots you miss, the more confidence they get, the better the defense becomes,” VanVleet said.
The numbers are just as ugly broken down individually. The Panthers swarmed Baker and VanVleet, clogged driving lanes, took away the post game and gave up shots to other Shockers. WSU knew what was coming.
Baker scored 12 points, making 5 of 18 shots and missing all five of his threes. VanVleet went 2 of 9 from the field and scored eight points. Zach Brown missed all six of his shots. Evan Wessel missed all four of his. Markis McDuffie whiffed on five threes. Conner Frankamp made one three-pointer.
It was quite a defensive effort by the Panthers and reminiscent of holding WSU to a season-low 30.3-percent shooting in a 53-50 win in February. Every time Baker or VanVleet ventured inside the three-point line, at least two Panthers waited.
“We just tried to keep them uncomfortable, keep them on their toes,” Washpun said. “Keep them guessing what we were doing defensively, use our length and quickness to be able to force them into some tougher shots.”
The Shockers are used to poor shooting games. In most, they cover that up by forcing turnovers and creating easy shots. The Panthers committed six turnovers, leading to three points for WSU.
“We weren’t able to turn them over very much, and so points off transition were few and far between,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “They don’t pass the ball a lot. It’s just hard to get into passing lanes.”
Like at Koch Arena, the game came down to a few crucial final possessions. Like at Koch Arena, the Panthers made the plays.
Guard Wyatt Lohaus tied the game 47-all with 1:57 remaining in regulation. VanVleet missed a jumper, Baker missed a jumper and Brown missed the front end of a one-and-one. The Shockers got one more chance to win after getting the ball back with 37 seconds to play. VanVleet drove and missed a contested bank shot with one second remaining to send the game into overtime.
That period turned on a hustle play by UNI’s Matt Bohannon, who knocked the ball away from VanVleet. After a scrum on the floor for the ball, it rolled out of bounds. Officials, after looking at the replay, gave the ball to the Panthers. Jeremy Morgan’s rainbow three-pointer, contested by Wessel, gave the Panthers a 55-52 lead with 1:18 to play.
“I took a look at the shot clock there and it was getting down,” Morgan said. “I knew I had to shoot it, so I just let it go with confidence.”
The Shockers called timeout with 57 seconds remaining. The play went bad from the start and VanVleet ended it by tossing a pass cross court to Frankamp as the shot clock expired 14 seconds later.
“It was a good play and I came off was trying to make my read,” VanVleet said. “I just didn’t make it quite fast enough and got in a tough spot and threw it to Conner. I don’t care what offense it is, any time our point guard is not doing the right thing, it’s not going to work.”
Washpun scored in the lane for a 57-52 lead with 18 seconds remaining. The Shockers managed one more shot, a long three by Markis McDuffie, with six seconds to play.
Like most of the others, it missed. The Panthers screamed and celebrated, their NCAA Tournament hopes alive for at least another day. The Shockers must wait a week and hope.