In the ninth NCAA Tournament game of his career, Wichita State senior guard Tekele Cotton made a split-second decision.
It wasn’t unlike the ones he’d made so many times in Missouri Valley Conference haunts like Normal, Ill., Des Moines, Iowa, or on his home court at Koch Arena.
Cotton, a 6-foot-2 senior from Marietta, Ga., saw a much, much bigger man standing in the way of him and the basket. This time, it was 6-foot-10 Kansas forward Landen Lucas.
The end result would be no different.
“I think I probably surprised (Kansas) a little bit,” Cotton said. “I looked at their faces and they looked a little surprised.”
Cotton, who would go on to finish with 19 points, three assists and two steals in Wichita State’s 78-65 win, went up and over Lucas for a Blake Griffin-style basket, throwing the ball in at eye level and picking up the foul. Cotton hit the ensuing free throw to tie the score 26-26 with 1:27 left in the first half, and after Fred VanVleet’s three-pointer 33 seconds later put Wichita State up 29-26, the Shockers would never trail again.
Not that Cotton was necessarily happy with how his highlight-reel turned out — which shouldn’t come as a surprise coming from the two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-MVC second-team selection who has made getting his dunks on SportsCenter’s Top 10 a regular occasion.
“I didn’t really get it like I wanted to, but I think they were a little surprised,” Cotton said.
So, how did you want it?
“All the way,” Cotton said, laughing.
It wasn’t just that one play that made Cotton’s performance against the Jayhawks probably the most memorable in his NCAA Tournament career. Aside from helping the Shockers clinch a spot in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three seasons, it broke a string of mediocre showings, including five points in last year’s third-round loss to Kentucky and a sluggish start in Friday’s win over Indiana, although he did end the game with nine points.
The Shockers play Notre Dame on Thursday in Cleveland.
“This is one of the best wins that I’ve had ... we’re just going to keep trying to advance, and that’s our goal,” Cotton said. “That win was for Wichita, and it was a tremendous win. I’m glad we got that win, so no we can move on.”
Cotton kept attacking in the second half, scoring five straight points out of the gate for Wichita State, including one of two steals that he converted for layups.
He even tried to go to the rack once again, this time with a different result. As Cotton went up for a two-handed slam with 1:24 left and Wichita State up 75-62, he was blindsided by Kansas forward Kelly Oubre, who was called for a flagrant foul.
Cotton, who suffered a finger injury earlier this season, then head and hip injuries in the MVC Tournament in St. Louis two weeks ago, stayed down for several minutes before hitting 1 of 2 free throws.
“I’m OK, and he just hit me a little bit on my head,” Cotton said. “I came down on my head a little bit, but I’m perfectly fine.”