WICHITA — It seems the only way anybody from the Missouri Valley Conference is going to spoil No. 4 Wichita State’s unbeaten season is if the Shockers spot them a big enough lead.
So far, even that hasn’t mattered a whole lot.
After allowing Evansville to race out to a 15-point lead on Saturday, the Shockers roared back behind big games from Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. The guards scored 14 points apiece to lead the Shockers to an 81-67 victory at Koch Arena.
“It’s just realizing there’s a lot of game left,” Baker said of the comeback. “Obviously there’s a sense of urgency, but you just keep playing the game, keep grinding it out.”
It’s become a theme for the Shockers (23-0, 10-0), who rallied from a 19-point deficit to defeat Missouri State earlier this season, and have often found themselves suffering through long stretches of poor play only to come out unscathed by the final buzzer.
So is there a deficit too big to overcome?
“Let’s just hope we don’t find out,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “I’m sure there is, at this point not so far, but let’s just hope we don’t find out anytime soon.”
D.J. Balentine scored 26 points for the Purple Aces (10-13, 3-7), who swept the season series from the Shockers a year ago. But the high-scoring sophomore, coming off a 43-point outing against Northern Iowa, didn’t get a whole lot of help from a bunch of teammates mired in foul trouble.
Evansville lost for the ninth time in 10 road games this season.
“They play so hard and they’re so active and they have so many good pieces,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “I’m certainly proud of our team and the way we battled.”
Cleanthony Early added 13 points and Tekele Cotton had 12 for the Shockers, who haven’t lost since last year’s surprising run to the Final Four, and now face the toughest two-game stretch standing between them and an unbeaten regular season.
First up is Indiana State on Wednesday night, followed by a trip to Northern Iowa — the two closest teams to the Shockers in the Missouri Valley standings.
Incidentally, the only Valley school with a better start than the Shockers was the Indiana State team led by Larry Bird, which won its first 33 games before losing an iconic NCAA title game to Magic Johnson and Michigan State on March 26, 1979.
“It’s something a lot of people have talked about,” Baker said. “We’re excited about it.”
Just as other teams have done this season, Evansville jumped on Wichita State early, building a 29-14 lead. The Purple Aces made their first eight shots, with assists on seven, and didn’t miss until Balentine’s 3-pointer was wide with 11:25 left in the half.
The Shockers never seemed to be worried, though.
Their comeback began when Baker scored with 8:12 remaining in the half, starting a 27-4 run spanning halftime and turning a 15-point deficit into a 41-33 lead. The charge was fueled by a three-quarter-court pressure that forced Evansville into several quick turnovers.
“When they’re making their run, it’s like pouring gasoline on the fire,” Simmons said. “That’s something we have to learn from.”
It didn’t help the Purple Aces that much of the run came with them in foul trouble.
Duane Gibson and fellow guard Adam Wing each had three fouls by halftime, and four others had two fouls apiece. That included Balentine, who sat on the bench for the final couple of minutes so that he wouldn’t be tempted into picking up his own third foul.
The Purple Aces hung around until the midway point of the second half, when Evan Wessel’s basket began a run of seven straight points that gave the Shockers a 70-52 lead.
Wichita State never allowed Evansville to get close for the final 8 minutes.
“The way they started, I said, ‘Oh boy, here we go again,’” Marshall said. “But we finally got stops. They missed a couple and we got out in transition and starting making some.”
Missouri Valley Conference
No. 4 Wichita State 81,
Gibson 1-4 4-4 6, Wing 3-5 0-0 7, Balentine 11-21 1-2 26, Simmons 2-7 2-4 7, Mockevicius 3-4 2-2 8, Benzon 0-0 0-0 0, Brown 1-2 0-0 2, Moore 2-2 0-0 4, Ptacek 0-3 0-0 0, Howard 3-6 1-6 7. Totals 26-54 10-18 67.
WICHITA ST. (23-0)
Early 3-9 5-5 13, Coleby 1-4 2-6 4, VanVleet 4-10 6-6 14, Baker 5-12 3-5 14, Cotton 4-6 2-2 12, Lufile 1-3 0-0 2, Green 0-0 0-0 0, Wessel 1-2 2-2 4, Bush 0-0 0-0 0, Carter 3-5 3-5 9, Simon 0-0 0-0 0, Wiggins 3-4 1-2 9. Totals 25-55 24-33 81.
Halftime—Wichita St. 39-33. Three-point goals—Evansville 5-11 (Balentine 3-6, Wing 1-1, Simmons 1-3, Ptacek 0-1), Wichita St. 7-19 (Cotton 2-2, Wiggins 2-2, Early 2-5, Baker 1-8, VanVleet 0-2). Fouled out—Mockevicius, Wing. Rebounds—Evansville 29 (Howard 5), Wichita St. 40 (Early 8). Assists—Evansville 17 (Gibson 7), Wichita St. 10 (VanVleet 5). Total fouls—Evansville 25, Wichita St. 15.