Evansville coach Marty Simmons filmed a promo for the video board where he praised Wichita State, asked for crowd noise and prepared fans take part in a memorable afternoon at the Ford Center.
A solid effort by Simmons, but the Shockers are experts at ruining big plans for the home team. On Saturday, they dismantled the Aces 61-41 in front of the season’s largest crowd in Evansville with a display of relentless defense and efficient offense.
“We had high expectations and they took it to us,” Simmons said.
No. 13 WSU (16-2) improved to 6-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference for the second straight season and the sixth time in program history. It extended its MVC modern-day record with a 24th straight regular-season conference win and won its 12th straight conference road game.
Soon after the Shockers departed the Ford Center for their chartered plane, they moved into sole possession of first place in the MVC when previously unbeaten Indiana State lost 84-78 at previously winless Drake.
It all came surprisingly easily and without much needed from guard Fred VanVleet, limited to 17 minutes by fouls. The Shockers, after what some considered two subpar wins in conference play, are rolling with four straight double-digit wins, two on the road against teams (Loyola and Evansville) considered tough obstacles.
“Our defense and rebounding is getting better game in and game out,” WSU guard Ron Baker said. “If we can limit transition points from the other team and trust our half-court defense and rebounding, I like our chances.”
So does Simmons, who watched his Aces (13-5, 3-3) score a season-low 41 points on a season-low 30-percent shooting. The Shockers gummed up his motion offense by sticking to guard D.J. Balentine and disrupting his passing lanes off screens. Balentine scored 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting. Center Egidijus Mockevicius, owner of 13 double-doubles, fouled out after scoring two points.
The Aces made 15 shots and committed 14 turnovers, a testament to WSU’s defensive masterpiece. Evansville entered the game ranked third nationally with 51.1 percent shooting accuracy. It averages 17.5 assists a game, ninth nationally, and finished Saturday with nine.
“We just chased them around,” WSU guard Tekele Cotton said. “That’s a lot of ball screens and we all stuck together. Over the years, you get used to what they’re doing.”
The Aces run their shooters through a maze of screens and try to free other players when the defense bends to help. Cotton did his job by rarely losing Balentine. The rest of the team helped obstruct Balentine while not letting him pass to open shooters. Balentine, and Colt Ryan before him, tortured the Shockers for years by drawing their attention and passing to big men for layups.
Not on Saturday.
“That’s about as well as we’ve played defensively,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “D.J. Balentine is such a great scorer that you have to give a lot of focus to him. The other guys feed off him. Tekele Cotton, he runs a half-marathon today, chasing D.J. Balentine off hundreds of screens.”
Balentine faced a thicket of shot-blockers and WSU crowded the lane to make passing and shooting difficult. When the Aces did get open shots, they missed and that is a credit to WSU’s pressure and presence. Baker blocked three shots. Freshman Shaq Morris blocked two and WSU finished with eight.
“At times, I thought we got some pretty good looks and were more concerned about getting hit than finishing at the basket,” Simmons said. “They do as good a job as anyone we play challenging shots.”
WSU’s Darius Carter, coming off a career-high 25 points against Southern Illinois, contributed 18 points and 11 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Baker added 18, making 8 of 9 free throws, and Morris came off the bench to score nine points.
The Aces started to fade late in the first half, scoring three points in the final 9:17. They missed nine straight shots and committed five turnovers in an ugly capsule of what went wrong. Balentine walked while trying to fake a shot to free himself from Cotton. Mislav Brzoja threw a pass out of bounds. Duane Gibson blew an open layup.
“They out-toughed us,” Balentine said. “I just feel like we weren’t really ready.”
WSU led 28-18 at halftime, finishing on a 10-3 run, and held the Aces to 8-of-24 shooting.
WSU started the second half making 5 of 7 shots and sucked all the energy out of the crowd of 7,015 and frustrated the Aces. The 15-6 run gave the Shockers a 43-24 lead and forced Evansville to call timeout in a desperate try at regrouping.
WSU outscored the Aces 8-4 after the timeout and went up 51-28 on Ron Baker’s three-pointer. Within two minutes, Marshall started clearing his bench and the Shockers patiently worked the clock for a low-stress ending.