Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Shockers improbably find a way of winning

Wichita State's Rashard Kelly scoops up a loose ball and calls time-out, helping the Shockers maintain a critical possession late in the game against Alabama.
Wichita State's Rashard Kelly scoops up a loose ball and calls time-out, helping the Shockers maintain a critical possession late in the game against Alabama. The Wichita Eagle

I swear I saw Dick Vitale checking his watch after Alabama went up on Wichita State, 51-40, with 5:48 left in Tuesday night’s game at Koch Arena.

Vitale must have been wondering why he came to Wichita to do analysis for ESPN2’s telecast. The Shockers were sluggish offensively, and that’s being kind. They couldn’t make a free throw, and that’s being kind.

Alabama was taking the game to the Shockers, shooting lights out and feeding off the bad vibes they were sending through a sellout crowd on one of the biggest nights Wichita State has had in a while.

Hey, Dicky V was in town.

It was probably the quietest he’s ever been for 35 minutes.

Then it happened. Out of nowhere – and I do mean nowhere – the Shockers started to fight for their lives. A team that had won its previous five home games – and we’re including the Saint Louis game at Intrust Bank Arena – by at least 15 points was in an unusual situation.

The amazing 13-1 run, which resulted in a 53-52 win, started with a Darius Carter dunk with 4:52 remaining. It included a Fred VanVleet dipsy-doo drive, a Ron Baker floater and two baskets from freshman Rashard Kelly, pressed into prime time after a foot injury to junior Evan Wessel late in the first half.

That tied the score.

And after Alabama took a one-point lead on a Levi Randolph free throw, the Shockers came up with their play of the season. VanVleet found Carter with a nifty bounce pass and the Carter emphatically dunked the go-ahead basket with 11 seconds to go.

Alabama scored one point after Shannon Hale’s three-pointer with 5:48 to play. The Shockers scored 13.

Who gets the credit? Gosh, who doesn’t?

Start with Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who tried and tried to find an offensive combination that could battle against Alabama’s size and athleticism.

Finally, he seemed to scrap that notion and turned the game over to defense. The Shockers’ zone press befuddled Alabama, which had trouble getting into a set. And Wichita State, finally, was off to the races.

More credit?

Carter was again big. He had nine points early, then went quiet, but had two big baskets during the comeback.

Baker didn’t have his best night, but did make three three-pointers.

VanVleet didn’t have his best night, but made a huge basket and created the game-winner with a genius pass.

Then there’s Kelly, who everybody believes will do big things for the Shockers. He got a jump start on those big things Tuesday, playing with confidence and not appearing overwhelmed by an 11-point deficit. Kelly might have had the best five-point, four-rebound game in Shocker history just because of when those points came.

Alabama will sting all the way back to Tuscaloosa. The Tide had this.

Forget making shots, Wichita State had trouble finding them for the longest time. The Koch Arena crowd erupted in those rare moments when the Shockers scored, but the fuse would not light. Alabama just kept dunking it in water.

Yet even at 51-40, and even with so little time left, and even with the Shockers’ futile attempts to get anything going, it’s impossible to give up on this team. You just figure Wichita State will find a way.

“We continue to fight, we find a way,” Marshall said. “That’s what these guys have done.”

And it’s why an 11-point lead, even when the Shockers manage only 40 points in nearly 35 minutes, isn’t insurmountable.

There’s a bunch of PTPers on this team, to borrow a Vitale description, who care more about winning than what their stats box score numbers look like.

Alabama gave the Shockers fits, but couldn’t win.

“I thought they had a great game plan,” Marshall said of the Tide (6-3). “Obviously, they’re very well-coached. I thought they did a wonderful job with their man (defense), zone, switching and protecting the rim. It was tough. We couldn’t buy a three-point basket or a free throw, so it made it difficult.”

But not impossible. Nothing seems to be impossible for Wichita State. The Shockers fought back from 11 points down on the road at Utah a couple of weeks ago and nearly pulled the game out before losing 69-68 in overtime.

It’s character, toughness, will – all the cliches that are difficult to define but easy to see.

I asked Baker, who had 14 points, to assess a team’s chances when it trails by 11 points with 5:48 to play and has struggled to score all night.

“Usually, I wouldn’t give that team much hope,” Baker said. “Think about it, 35-second possessions – under the eight-minute time out and you’re down double digits, I usually don’t give that team much of a chance.”

Unless, that is, you add to the equation the team on top scores one point.

“Yeah, with that scenario, anything is possible,” Baker said.

The Shockers make the possible almost probable.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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