Defense prevails as Wichita State beats Evansville 84-68 to stay undefeated

No. 4 Wichita State learned from its first meeting with Evansville that playing off the Aces guards, even the ones who don’t shoot, just doesn’t work.

The Shockers pressed Evansville in the half-court on Sunday and disrupted its motion offense with a risk-and-reward approach. Wichita State forced 18 turnovers and scored 23 points off those turnovers, handling the Aces 84-68 at the Ford Center on Sunday afternoon.

On the 2013-14 Shocker scale, the history-making impact of the game was minimal. Wichita State, 27-0 overall and 14-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference, is the first team to go 27-0 since Illinois in 2004-05. The Shockers have built a three-game lead in the conference with four to play and avoided disaster against a school that sank Shocker hopes as recently as last season when it swept the series.

Wichita State guard Ron Baker, looking extra-bouncy after four days of rest, scored a career-high 26 points. Fred VanVleet added 18, and both lived in the passing lanes, deflecting balls, grabbing steals and turning those mistakes into baskets. They both grabbed career-highs of five steals, and the Shockers made a season-high 14 steals.

Evansville, 11-16 and 4-10, lost for the fifth time in six games.

“The glaring stat is our turnovers,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “They’re just A-to-B passes. If you don’t screen these guys, they do a great job of getting out in the passing lanes. You’ve got to use ball fakes. They’re very, very aggressive. They’re very active.”

The Shockers, ranked No. 2 in the coaches’ poll, played a softer version of their defense early in the Feb. 1 game at Koch Arena, content to let nonshooters Duane Gibson and Jaylon Brown handle the ball in order to help on scorers. The Aces made their first eight shots and led 17-9, prompting a change.

On Sunday, the Shockers played all-out from the start.

“Our guys were just a half-step quicker than they were at Wichita State,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “They were beating them to the spot many times, were able to get some steals and some run-outs.”

Indeed, the Shockers seemed to be waiting for some of the passes. The Aces helped with average-speed cuts that were not decisive enough to shake the Shockers, and a refusal to cut back door — perhaps because of the waiting shot-blockers. Wichita State went to school on Evansville’s motion offense, and the scouting report prepared by associate head coach Chris Jans played out like a dream.

“If you fall back and let them pass where they want to, they’ll pick you apart,” VanVleet said. “I don’t think we anticipated getting so many steals like that, but it definitely helped and gave us a little bit of confidence guarding them.”

Winning the turnover battle so decisively made Marshall feel better about allowing the Aces to shoot 51.1 percent from the field and make five of 11 three-pointers. Evansville guard D.J. Balentine scored 19 points on five-of-17 shooting. Center Egidijus Mockevicius also scored 19, tying his career high, to go with 10 rebounds.

“Our turnovers tonight led to run-outs and easy baskets,” Marshall said. “And that’s what you have to have against these guys.”

Wichita State led for the game’s final 29 minutes. The Aces, fueled by support from a season-high crowd of 8,802, refused to fade. They cut the lead to 65-60 and had the ball twice. They came up empty both times and watched their best chances disappear. Wichita State upped the pressure on an in-bound play to force a turnover and, after a Shocker turnover, Balentine missed.

“We were within striking distance,” Simmons said. “If you want to beat teams like Wichita State, you can’t make mistakes.”

The Shockers led 71-64 when a 7-0 run, all by Baker, ended any doubt. He made two free throws with 2:54 to play for a 73-64 lead. His three and a one-handed dunk after a steal put Wichita State up 78-64 and sent many of the fans home.

Wichita State kept Balentine out of the picture for much of the first half and built a 34-25 lead before he got rolling. The Aces ran him off a double-screen to free him from Tekele Cotton’s defense and he made a three-pointer.

Balentine scored 10 points, seven in the final 3:33 of the half.