LAHAINA, Hawaii — Wichita State’s debut on national television as the No. 6 team in the country was memorable.
But not because the Shockers looked like the national title contender everyone was telling them they were. No, Monday at the Lahaina Civic Center was about survival in Wichita State’s 92-82 victory over California in the opening round of the Maui Invitational. Wichita State (3-0) will advance to play Marquette (2-1) in the semifinals.
For the first time, Wichita State was wide-eyed and stunned. Cal shredded what was supposedly one of the nation’s most efficient defenses and put the Shockers in an 18-point hole with less than 16 minutes remaining.
That’s when Gregg Marshall flipped the game around by switching to a full-court press spearheaded by the length of Rauno Nurger and Rashard Kelly.
Over the game’s final 34 possessions, Wichita State outscored California 50-26. Making the feat even more impressive is that the Shockers did it with 42-percent shooting and just 1 of 12 shooting from beyond the arc in the second half. Shaquille Morris scored a team-high 25 points, while Landry Shamet poured in 23 to fuel the comeback.
“The way the game was going and the way we were playing, we just needed it to be as long of a second half as possible,” Marshall said. “We needed it to be as many possessions as possible.”
Up until the second half, Cal had taken care of the ball against Wichita State’s defense. But up against 94 feet of pressure, the Golden Bears collapsed.
Kelly and Nurger smothered Cal’s guards, which forced them to loft their passes and allow Zach Brown (four steals) and Conner Frankamp (three) to swoop in for the steal.
“That’s what we live off of,” Kelly said of the pressure. “That’s our bread and butter and something we always have in the back pocket.”
The comeback began when Frankamp connected on the only three-pointer of the second half for WSU. Nurger followed with seven straight points to trim Cal’s lead to 61-54 with more than 11 minutes left.
Cal was able to hold off WSU’s advances for five more minutes, but WSU finally found a final, devastating surge delivered by Morris. He made two free throws, then followed it up with an acrobatic scoop shot that fell that turned into a three-point play. Samajae Haynes-Jones raced downcourt and finished with a finger-roll layup in transition to tie the score at 76, the first time WSU hadn’t trailed since the game’s opening minutes.
It was Morris again down the stretch to put WSU on top. He scored a layup with 3:36 to go to tie the game at 80, then hit a free-throw line jumper to give the Shockers a lead. He followed with another jumper, then Brown finished on an ambitious trek to the rim.
In less than 90 seconds, Wichita State had gone from trailing 80-78 to leading 86-80. Cal never recovered.
“When we switched to the press, you’re flying around and it’s easy to get energy going,” Shamet said. “We knew the game changed when we started doing that.”
It was a rally that spoiled what was a spectacular performance by Cal junior guard Don Coleman, who scored a career-high 35 points.
Coleman eviscerated Wichita State’s defense in the first half, scoring 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting. It didn’t matter which WSU player was in front of him, Coleman was able to get to whatever spot he wanted to on the floor and score.
But when Wichita State started pressing, Cal struggled to funnel the ball to its supreme scorer like it did in the first half. In those fateful final 16 minutes, Coleman scored seven points on 2-of-9 shooting with a pair of turnovers.
“I was disappointed in the way we played in the first half,” Marshall said. “But the thing that has made this program pretty good over the years is the grit and the determination. We really showed that in the second half, but we’ve got to play better.”