EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) No. 4 Wichita State relied on the basics Sunday: defense and ball security.
Again, it was the perfect combination.
The Shockers forced 18 turnovers, finished with a season-high 14 steals and finally locked down Evansville’s shooters late to pull away for an 84-68 victory that kept them one of the nation’s two undefeated teams.
”We wanted to extend them, get their timing disrupted. I don’t think we expected that many steals,” Fred VanVleet said. ”There were only a few times where we had breakdowns where we weren’t really where we were supposed to be.”
Few expected the Shockers (27-0, 14-0 Missouri Valley Conference) to be in this spot – even after reaching the Final Four last April.
They are one of only 21 teams in NCAA history to win their first 27 games, extended their school-record winning streak and are 14-0 in conference play for the first time in school history.
And after Arizona’s latest loss, Wichita State could be poised to move up another notch in the poll, getting even closer to Division I’s only other perfect team – No. 1 Syracuse. A win Wednesday at Loyola also would assure the Shockers at least a share of the regular-season conference title and the No. 1 seed in the Valley tournament – with three league games still on the docket.
How have they done it?
With a balanced offense and a staunch defense that Evansville knows is the best in the Valley.
Wichita State trumped the Purple Aces by outscoring them 23-2 off turnovers and 10-4 on fastbreaks. Coach Gregg Marshall didn’t even need a stat sheet to tell him what had happened. He estimated that the Shockers topped the 40-deflection mark.
The other numbers were just as glaring.
VanVleet and Ron Baker each finished with a career-best five steals, and, not surprisingly wound up as the top scorers. Baker had a career-high 26 points, while VanVleet added 18 and eight assists and flirted with the possibility of a triple-double throughout the second half.
But that’s not what motivated Wichita, which lost twice to Evansville last season and fell behind by double-digits early in the first meeting two weeks ago at Wichita.
They wanted to put away the Aces, and before the game, Marshall let Cleanthony Early, the team’s top scorer, know exactly what he needed to do in front of a Pacers scout who had been asking about his defense.
Early responded by scoring 13 points, seven rebounds and playing his best defensive game of the year, too.
”I loved his mental approach tonight and that’s not always the case,” Marshall said. ”But tonight I thought he was very disciplined and when he does that, man, he’s really good.”
Evansville (11-16, 4-10) learned its lesson the hard way.
Despite getting 19 points from D.J. Balentine, the MVC’s top scorer, and 19 points and 10 rebounds from Egidiju Mockevicius, it wasn’t quite enough to prevent a fourth loss in five games or a second straight this season to Wichita.
The Purple Aces did most of what they set out to do – shooting 51.1 percent from the field, 45.5 percent from 3-point range, made 15 of 16 free throws, limited the Shockers to only six offensive rebounds and kept challenging Wichita State right down to the final minutes.
But the turnovers, as they had all game, finally did them in.
”We didn’t turn it over in the press, we did it in the half-court and you have to take care of the basketball,” coach Marty Simmons said. ”We’ve really got to learn, we’ve got to learn from that, and that’s one of our biggest deficiencies.”
The Purple Aces, however, only trailed 38-32 at the half and still found a way to fight back after falling into a 55-41 deficit early in the second half.
Mockevicius scored the first eight points in a 10-2 spurt that cut the deficit to 57-51 with 11:19 to go.
Early answered with five straight points and Evansville rallied again, getting as close as 65-60 with 6:10 left before throwing the ball away on an inbound pass that would have cut the deficit to three.
”They did a good job of changing defenses and I was trying to get a timeout,” Simmons said.
Instead, the Shockers got the ball back and forced two more turnovers during the decisive 13-4 run that finally sealed the victory.
”We were just focused on getting stops and it went in our favor,” VanVleet said. ”We wanted to end it right there. After that possession, I think we got back on the right track.”