No. 21 Wichita State tries not to stumble against Missouri State

ST. LOUIS — After Friday night’s 82-56 rout of Bradley in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall was asked how he kept his team motivated for a third meeting with an opponent they had beaten twice by a combined 49 points.

“They’d been playing well, four-game win streak for them,” he said of the Braves. “You have to have a mental edge. You can’t go in with young people thinking it’s going to be easy. It’s never easy.”

Marshall can basically make the same speech Saturday when the 21st-ranked Shockers (28-4) meet Missouri State in the MVC semifinals at Scottrade Center.

Already the owners of 80-62 and 86-67 wins over the Bears (17-15) last month, second-seeded Wichita State is a heavy favorite in this one. Sixth-seeded Missouri State pulled a mild upset late Friday night, dumping two-time MVC tourney champion Northern Iowa 70-64.

One thing in the Bears’ favor is that they’re one of the few MVC teams with the ability to match or even surpass the Shockers in rebounding. Led by MVC Newcomer of the Year Alize Johnson, Missouri State actually outboarded Wichita State in both meetings.

Johnson was particularly effective on Feb. 25 in Springfield, collecting 18 points and 12 rebounds. Half his boards came on the offensive end, a particular irritant to Marshall, who’s more adamant than most coaches about controlling the glass.

“Alize Johnson anticipated the shot much better than us,” Marshall said earlier this week about that game. “There were times where our ‘four’ men weren’t ready, or they were pushed under the basket and he got the rebound. That’s unacceptable, and we have to work on that.”

Johnson and shooting guard Dequon Miller, who had 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the field last weekend against the Shockers, enabled the Bears to pull within four points early in the second half.

But Wichita State pulled away down the stretch, connecting on eight 3-pointers in the second half and making 54 percent of its shots from the field overall.

Miller is eager for a third shot at the Shockers.

“I mean, it’s always going to feel good to get a crack at a top 25 team,” he said. “We’re just going to try to battle and take care of business the right way.”

To have any hope at an upset, Missouri State has to play better first-shot defense and take care of the ball.

The Bears have allowed Wichita State to make just over 50 percent of their shots from the field in the two meetings and have been damaged by points off turnovers. The Shockers have a combined 41-15 advantage in that category.

Wichita State will be seeking its 14th straight win. This one would get it into the MVC final on Sunday against co-champion Illinois State or Southern Illinois, who play in Saturday’s first semifinal.

“We’ve just got to keep building,” said Shockers forward Darral Willis, who scored a team-high 17 points in just 14 minutes against Bradley. “Not settle for anything, get to where we want to get.”