Long week. Weird hours. Lots of emotion. It is over for Wichita State and the Shockers are unbeaten, but far from perfect.
No. 16 WSU trailed at halftime for a second straight game before pulling away from a lesser opponent. The Shockers defeated Tennessee State 85-71 on Saturday afternoon at Koch Arena to end a stretch of four games in eight days. They played at midnight. They played at 1 p.m., 7 p.m. and noon and they watched the Final Four banner drop on Tuesday morning.
With routines busted, the Shockers need extra time to get warmed up.
Is that all it is? The problem isn’t trailing by one point at halftime to Tennessee State and William Mary. The danger is trailing by 10 at Tulsa on Wednesday. WSU’s first-half issues may be attributable to the randomness of the sport, or they may be an issue requiring serious contemplation.
Naturally, the Shockers (4-0) are taking it seriously. The cushy part of the non-conference schedule is over. After Tulsa, WSU plays DePaul, Texas or BYU, and Saint Louis, none at home.
“We’ve just got to prep for a game that could bite us in behind,” WSU guard Tekele Cotton said. “If we play the rest of our games that we’ve got before Christmas like this, you don’t know what the results are going to be.”
The Shockers shot poorly in the first half, missing 20 shots and six free throws. The defense gave up too many easy baskets to the Tigers (0-4). Coach Gregg Marshall called it a “Groundhog Day” feeling after discussing similar problems after Thursday’s win over William Mary.
“Same story,” he said. “I’m going to have to figure out a way to entice these guys to play the way they play in the second half at the jump. We did have four games in less than eight days. That’s a lot right out of chute, but, again, if you can play in the second half, why can’t you play in the first half?”
Cotton made sure the result didn’t turn disastrous with a career-high 18 points, 12 in the second half. He made all four of his threes and gave the Shockers punch on a day Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet combined to go 4 of 18 from the field.
“I just felt good before the game, and it carried over,” Cotton said.
Cotton looked like the shooter who performed well in last season’s NCAA Tournament. No hesitation. High, arching shot. Three points. Marshall saw indecision in earlier games.
“He looked very confident,” Marshall said. “When he shoots it with confidence, it usually goes in. I like him to be a rhythm shooter. Shoot it with confidence and know you’re going to make it. Don’t shoot it and hope.”
After another sluggish first half, the Shockers started making shots in the second half. Nick Wiggins came off the bench to score 10 points. Cleanthony Early got things going with a hustle play. Darius Carter scored seven of his nine points in the second half, abandoning the hook shot for post moves that got him closer to the basket and drew fouls.
Early’s steal and layup turned momentum in the second half. He deflected a pass near the foul line and beat two Tigers to the loose ball. His layup gave WSU a 37-36 lead and energized the crowd.
“That was a big momentum-changer for us,” Wiggins said. “Got the crowd back into it. We just needed to string stops together.”
After another turnover, VanVleet scored on a layup. After two misses by the Tigers, Carter’s three-point play gave the Shockers a 42-36 lead with 15:41 remaining. The run continued with an Early layup and Cotton’s three — his third of the game in three attempts —for a 48-38 lead with 12:56 remaining. Tennessee State coach Travis Williams called timeout in an attempt to quiet the crowd.
Wiggins provided instant offense with a jumper for a 50-40 lead and three-point play for a 56-45 edge. He dunked after Ron Baker’s hustle forced a turnover for a 58-45 lead and the lead didn’t drop below nine the rest of the way.
Patrick Miller led Tennessee State with 23 points.
WSU shot 33.3 percent in the first half, making 10 of 30 shots. It led 19-13 on a dunk by Kadeem Coleby and then gave up a 6-0 run. The Tigers took a 29-28 halftime lead on Miller’s three-pointer in the final seconds.