Key statistics: WSU held the Aces to 15 baskets, two from three-point range. WSU also outscored Evansvillle by 10 points at the foul line, in large part by making 16 of 19 in the second half.
Records: WSU 16-2, 6-0 MVC; UNI 13-5, 3-3
How the game turned: The Shockers wobbled early in the second half. Turnovers by Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton and a forced shot by Ron Baker opened the door for the Aces. Duane Gibson scored four straight points, catching WSU asleep for a layup that cut the lead to 32-22. After Baker shot an airball, he hustled to block a layup by Mislav Brzoja. Instead of protecting an eight-point lead, and fighting a confident team, WSU quickly scored and led by 12 and then 14.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: WSU out-rebounded the Aces 39-26 with Carter grabbing 11.
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Stat that might surprise you: D.J. Balentine scored 16 points and no teammate scored more than six. Evansville’s four other starters combined to score 17 points on 7-of-22 shooting.
Next up: at Missouri State (8-9, 2-3), 7:05 p.m. Wednesday (Cox 22)
▪ The Shockers won their fourth-straight game by 12 or more points, held their sixth straight opponent under 40 percent from the field and held an opponent under 56 points for the fourth straight game.
They appear to have recovered from what, in retrospect, looks like a grind in December. In early and mid-December, WSU played five games in 14 days, all against good competition. Then the Shockers flew to Hawaii, endured a delay of almost 24 hours, and played three games in four days, one that went to overtime.
They returned to play at Drake four days later. They didn’t look great in a 66-58 win in which the Bulldogs out-rebounded them by nine.
Nobody likes to hear complaints about playing in Hawaii. Anybody who made that trip knows it requires recovery time, even for young athletes. Stack all those tests together and the Shockers can be excused for looking less-than-their best in their early MVC games. That certainly applies to Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton, three players loaded on 30-minute nights.
The Shockers look sharper and bouncier in recent games. They are home, back to a routine and the schedule eases a bit with some Saturday-Wednesday-Sunday weeks.
"The trip to Hawaii took a beating on us all, mentally and physically," Baker said. "We got beat in the finals and the trip home was a long trip, eight hours on a plane gives you the worst jet lag a man can bear."
Whatever the reason, WSU played particularly well in road wins over Loyola and Evansville during this stretch. The Shockers outscored Loyola 44-25 in the second half while making 71.4 percent of their shots. Evansville trailed by 10 or more points the final 22:58 on Saturday at home. Both teams look like upper-division finishers and both already own important MVC wins – Loyola at Evansville and Evansville over Northern Iowa.
"They’ve been really good in trying to improve over the holiday break," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "We put a lot of time and effort into practice. We have to go back to school this week, so they’ll have another thing to concentrate on."
The 2012 MVC champions won by one point at Evansville. The 2013 Final Four team lost at the Ford Center. WSU’s 20-point margin is the largest since the 2004 team won 88-66 at Roberts Stadium.
▪ The Aces entered the game assisting on 65 percent of their baskets, a mark that ranked sixth nationally and 17.5 assists, ninth nationally. Against WSU, they recorded nine assists, one above their season-low. The Shockers disrupted Evansville’s motion offense as well as I’ve seen a WSU team do it. The Aces were often forced to work late into the shot clock or go one-on-one.
“Too many times we got caught out there and we’re stationary dribbling and they’re getting up into us and that really causes us problems as far as delivering the basketball,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “When you don’t use the dribble to attack against Wichita State, it causes a ton of problems.”
In past games, the Aces were often able to get the ball to their big man, once the Shockers started selling out to stop players such as Colt Ryan or D.J. Balentine curling off screens. That left players such as Pieter van Tongeren and Egidijus Mockevicius open after a slip to the basket.
The Shockers refused to allow that action to gain much traction on Saturday.
“We emphasized that a lot,” Baker said. “Any time Big Mo set a screen, you’ve got to be at the level (of the screen), you’ve got to feel him and show face and that was Balentine, if he does curl, he has to take a three-foot curl off our defender instead of right of Big Mo and that disrupts it just a split-second enough to set your defense.”
You’ve got to go back to the heralded 2007-08 team to find a team that limited the Aces with such success. First-year coaches Marshall and Simmons matched up in a 64-56 Aces win at Roberts Stadium. WSU lost despite holding the Aces to 30 percent shooting (15 of 50) and 12 assists.
Those shooting numbers match Saturday’s exactly.
▪ In that 2007-08 game, the Aces outscored WSU 26-16 at the foul line, a constant irritant for the Shockers over the year. Players such as Ryan and Balentine live at the line.
On Saturday, WSU outscored the Aces 19-9 at the line. It is the fourth team this season to win that battle and the Aces are 1-3 in those games.
WSU played good defense without fouling and negated an important part of Evansville’s offense. The Aces, with 287 made free throws, are second in the MVC in points from the line.
▪ Baker added another chase-down block to his list and watching him fly from behind to swat away shots by unsuspecting opponents is routine. His 14 blocks lead the Shockers and most of them seem to come from behind, largely because he is relentless.
“Where they’re different is that they play so hard,” Simmons said. “Even when they’re behind you, they made a couple great blocks from behind. Baker is a tremendous competitor. Cotton is a tremendous competitor.”
One of the themes from WSU’s loss to George Washington and the close game at Drake was that opponents no longer saw the Shockers as the invincible 35-0 machine from last season. We saw that change a bit on Saturday. The Aces talked about not being ready to play, lacking confidence after a slow start and getting frustrated.
Simmons dismissed most of that, while admitting WSU’s aggressiveness ruled most of the day.
“The physicality, we’ve got to embrace it,” he said. “We didn’t handle it very good today. They play extremely hard. That’s the trademark of their program.”
Those are different words than we heard after the Hawaii, GW and Drake games. If there are points to be won during film study and preparation, perhaps the Shockers are moving closer to stealing some hope from their opponents before tip-off.