Wichita State found itself in an interesting dilemma Friday afternoon. The Shockers trailed Loyola, a team they dusted twice during the regular season, by seven points in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament with not a whole heck of a lot of time left.
This thing could go one of two ways. Wichita State could find a way to come back and win or the Shockers could be bounced from the tournament early and likely get a phone call from somebody representing the NIT in 11 days.
That is a phone call no one at WSU wants to answer.
So who are the Shockers gonna call in such dire straits? Ron Baker, please answer the phone.
Sure enough, it was Baker dialing long distance in the final 5 minutes, 33 seconds with three huge three-pointers as Wichita State rallied for a 66-58 win and lived to see the conference semifinals and, likely, the NCAA Tournament, although it’s not safe to take these things for granted.
The Shockers were in real trouble. Loyola was making shots and each fueled the Ramblers’ confidence. Let’s just say that if there was something to grip, the 4,000-or-so WSU fans inside the Scottrade Center were gripping it. Plus all white knuckles back in Wichita and other Shocker strongholds.
The urgency of winning this particular game wasn’t lost on the Wichita State players, either.
“Those thoughts did seep into my head,” Baker said. “I knew this game was pretty big as far as the (NCAA) selection committee and all that. We needed to get stops and we needed to make some big baskets down the stretch.”
Center Shaquille Morris took care of the stops by becoming a shot-blocking machine. He didn’t take a shot, but he rejected six.
It was Baker’s offensive magic, though, that staved off a potentially disastrous scenario that would have sent him and senior teammates Fred VanVleet and Evan Wessel packing for the tournament nobody talks about.
Baker’s three-point play with 8:16 left, after being fouled on a drive, cut Loyola’s lead to four.
But that turn wasn’t the spark that ignited a comeback. Loyola rebuilt its lead to 52-45 on an Earl Peterson basket with 5:49 to play.
Baker nailed a three from the top of the key to make it 52-48. Just more than a minute later, with 4:27 left, he stuck an off-balance three from almost the same spot to make it a one-point game.
Baker, who normally plays with the stoic demeanor of an Old West gunfighter, cut loose with a barrage of verbiage and gestures that made those frantic Shocker fans feel a moment of calm, as if they knew Ron Baker had this.
It wasn’t until his last three-pointer though, with 1:54 to play, that the Shockers finally wrested the lead, 57-55 for the first time in nearly 12 minutes that felt more like 12 days.
Baker downplayed the shots. He’s a decorated senior, after all, so these things fall under his own expectations.
He did admit, though, to having a clearer mind as he was pouring in 25 of his team’s 66 points.
“I wish I could be like this every game,” he said. “My mental approach today was at full capacity, my confidence level was at full capacity, and I was just playing the game the best I could to help my team win.
“Every team here is trying to reach the same goal and every team is playing hard. We all know it’s desperation time, so everyone is playing their hardest and today we were able to make the right plays down the stretch.”
Loyola, fighting like Loyola has rarely fought, may have scared the Shockers straight. It’s hard to imagine Wichita State won’t play better in the semifinals Saturday against Northern Iowa, which fought off Southern Illinois on Friday.
Surely, VanVleet won’t get stuck with two early fouls, causing him to spend the final 11:53 of the first half on the bench. VanVleet made some big free throws down the stretch, but otherwise couldn’t find his groove. Imagine feeling out of sorts as your team could be losing its grip on a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament.
“There’s definitely a sense of urgency there,” VanVleet said. “We’re feeling what a lot of other teams are feeling and we’re banking on winning this thing and not leaving it up to somebody else’s opinion of us. It got tough in the second half but you’ve got to give Ron a ton of credit for bailing us out. For bailing me out. He was special tonight.”
VanVleet said the only thing more frustrating than foul problems is the hamstring injury that kept him out of several early-season games and limited his effectiveness in others.
WSU clearly runs more efficiently when VanVleet is running without pain and free of the shackles of fouls.
He’ll undoubtedly be better Saturday. The Shockers can regroup. Baker pulled them through a storm.