You can beat Wichita State. You just have to kill them first.
And killing the Shockers isn’t easy, as Utah discovered Wednesday night in Salt Lake City. The Utes led by 11 with just more than five minutes left. They had overcome an early 10-0 deficit to outscore Wichita State, 57-36.
The janitors had push brooms in their hands, ready to clean the floor. But they were delayed.
Wichita State’s heart and determination has been well documented, but it’s time to document it again. The Shockers stormed back behind Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Fred VanVleet to take a two-point lead before ultimately settling for overtime.
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Wichita State lost in OT, 69-68. But they gave a national television audience a great reason to stay up late. And let’s give credit to Utah, a really good team that refused to panic early on when the game was slipping away.
The Shockers’ 35-game regular-season winning streak is over. But it could easily be a while before they lose another one.
Wichita State had no business being close. The Shockers were out-shot, out-rebounded – pretty much out-everythinged by Utah. But here comes that heart again. Here comes that determination.
Utah was probably a little surprised to win, even though the Utes outplayed Wichita State. Trounced the Shockers for a while, even.
For the first time this season, it was obvious how much WSU misses forward Cleanthony Early, currently on the injured list as a rookie with the New York Knicks.
Early thrived in games like this – on the road, hostile environment, playing against good players. He would have been a huge difference maker.
The Shockers, though, have a bunch of difference makers.
Cotton hit a huge three-pointer late in regulation to pull WSU to within a point. VanVleet scored eight points in the final 2:40 of regulation; his night, though, was a huge mixed bag.
It was VanVleet who missed the front end of a one-and-one with 7.5 seconds left and Wichita State trailing by one. A follow by Evan Wessel, who had a big three-pointer in OT to cut a four-point Utes lead to one, bounced off the rim.
And Utah escaped.
How, nobody knows? Once the Shockers turned the momentum switch, it was unfathomable to think they would come up short.
Some flaws appeared for Wichita State, a team so reliant on VanVleet, Baker and Cotton that others sometimes get left out. Those three combined for 40 of the Shockers’ 63 shots.
Senior center Darius Carter is always an offensive factor – when he’s on the floor. Trouble is, he’s having trouble staying on the floor. That was again the case Wednesday night, as Carter’s minutes were limited because of foul trouble. He scored 10 points but had a heck of a time trying to stop Utah freshman Jakob Poeltl, an Austrian who had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
It’s not realistic yet to expect young front-liners Shaq Morris, Rashard Kelly, Bush Wamukota and Rauno Nurger to produce much on the road against a team like Utah. And they didn’t, scoring only four points.
VanVleet, Baker and Cotton are horses, but they occasionally need water.
VanVleet made only 5 of 19 shots and was two of 10 from the three-point line. And he continues to mysteriously struggle at the free-throw line after making nearly 90 percent last season. It’s going to be important for red-shirt freshman Ria’n Holland to continue to develop; he made a pair of three-pointers Wednesday.
This loss isn’t a terrible thing, especially because of the furious rally in the final minutes of regulation. By January, maybe sooner, some of those young big guys are going to figure some things out. Holland shows promise. And even though Wessel made just one of five shots, he had a team-high nine rebounds and is as tough as they come.
Wichita State went on the road to play a ranked team with a sellout crowd going crazy on ESPN2.
And the Shockers nearly pulled it off without playing particularly well.
There’s work to be be done, but this is a team that loves labor. Wichita State will roll up its sleeves.