Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early likes everything about Redbird Arena, even the fans who give him a hard time and hold up signs mocking him, his coach and his school.
It is a fun place to play when you’re winning and Early completed a two-year mission to burn down the place with his outside shooting on Wednesday. No. 5 Wichita State handled Illinois State 70-55 to remain one of the nation’s three unbeaten teams.
Early scored 23 points, making six of nine three-pointers, and grabbed 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season. Last year, he completed an eight-points-in-40-seconds comeback with a game-winning three with 4.8 seconds remaining as the Shockers won 68-67.
“The environment is crazy,” Early said. “I like the crowd. I like how intense they are. With what we did last year, it makes this year a little bit better. We had to get the win.”
At 20-0 and 7-0 in the Missouri Valley, Wichita State has the conference’s second-best season-opening streak behind the 1979 Indiana State team, which went 33-0 before losing in the NCAA title game.
The Redbirds, 11-8 and 4-3, went one for 25 from three-point range. Daishon Knight led Illinois State with 12 points.
“They shot it great, better than they usually do, and we didn’t,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. “We’re not going to beat many teams, especially a team like that, going one of 25 from three.”
After a tense 40 minutes, the Shockers joked it up after the game. They could afford to after turning a bad first half into a routine victory.
Wichita State committed 11 turnovers in the first half, more than its season average for a game, and trailed 28-25. Illinois State’s trapping and pressure from its zone forced the visitors into awkward spots, and the Shockers forced passes and dribbled into traffic.
“Everything that was going on in the first half was just indicative of them playing harder and tougher and smarter than we did,” Marshall said.
The second half looked completely different.
Wichita State committed just two turnovers and made six of 14 three-pointers to quiet the crowd. Early made three of five in the second half.
“He hit his first couple and then he started asking for it a little bit more,” Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet said. “We were just trying to find him in good spots.”
The Shockers opened the second half with a 10-1 run to go up 35-29 on guard Ron Baker’s corner three.
A three-point play by VanVleet made it 41-33. On the play, Illinois State’s Tony Wills was assessed a flagrant foul for hitting Baker with a forearm to the chin. Baker’s foul shots made it 43-33.
“Coach challenged us at halftime,” VanVleet said. “We were getting outplayed by their guards and we took it personal and got back to the way we want to play.”