ORLANDO, Fla. — Sunday’s showdown with Cincinnati at Koch Arena for the American Athletic Conference championship is set.
Before the stakes could be finalized, No. 11 Wichita State first had to take care of business on Thursday in Orlando. The Shockers cleared the final obstacle — with an extra five minutes — in a 75-71 overtime victory over Central Florida at CFE Arena, improving to 24-5 overall and 14-3 in AAC play.
With its victory, WSU guaranteed it will play for at least a share of the conference title on Sunday. Cincinnati (25-4, 14-2) played at Tulane on Thursday. The Shockers won at Cincinnati, 76-72, in their first meeting two weeks ago.
Shaquille Morris scored a team-high 19 points with nine rebounds and three blocks in Thursday’s win, while Conner Frankamp added 16 points and Landry Shamet had 14. UCF’s AJ Davis scored a career-high 31 points, including a career-high six 3-pointers with his final one forcing overtime. BJ Taylor added 23 for the Knights (17-12, 8-9).
UCF erased a 9-point deficit over the final four minutes with an 11-2 run, culminating in a banked-in, desperation 3-pointer by Davis with less than one second remaining in regulation. The unlikely play (Davis was shooting 30 percent on 3s entering Thursday) came after Markis McDuffie missed the front-end of a bonus free throw with 17 seconds left.
UCF took a brief lead, 69-68, in overtime after a Dayon Griffin 3-pointer, but Frankamp responded with the go-ahead jumper with 1:29 remaining. Davis was fouled on UCF’s next possession, but missed both free throws. Darral Willis followed with a fadeaway jumper for a 72-69 lead with 39 seconds left.
Zach Brown played outstanding defense on UCF’s next possession, hounding Taylor into a difficult shot, grabbing the rebound, then shuttling it to Shamet to be fouled. The sophomore knocked down both of his free throws with 20 seconds left for a 74-69 lead. UCF scored, but Austin Reaves made one free throw with nine seconds left to secure the win.
Thursday’s game started in the most concerning fashion, as WSU’s streaky defense made UCF’s offense that ranked No. 270 in the country look downright deadly. UCF picked apart WSU’s man defense and made 9 of its first 12 shots and put the Shockers in a 22-11 with 12:23 remaining in the first half.
The situation became so dire that after the media timeout, WSU coach Gregg Marshall switched WSU to a 1-3-1 zone. The decision spurred the Shockers to a 23-3 run.
WSU’s defense generated 13 empty possessions and held UCF to three points over its next 15 possessions, baiting the Knights into a barrage of jump shots and three turnovers.
Meanwhile, WSU reeled off eight straight points on a Markis McDuffie three-point play, a Frankamp 3-pointer and a Rauno Nurger tip-in. Brown jumped the passing line for a steal and breakaway dunk, then Morris restored WSU’s lead, 25-24, with 5:27 remaining on a 15-footer.
The Shockers went from down 11 to up nine in less than 10 minutes, as WSU took a 34-25 lead that was highlighted by a Kelly offensive rebound that led to his first 3-pointer of the season (Kelly was 0 for 14). WSU took a 36-29 lead into halftime after capitalizing off every UCF mistake, turning six UCF turnovers into 13 points.
But that was not the end of the concern, as UCF reeled off an 11-2 run in the first three minutes of the second half, punctuated by an emphatic Taylor dunk for a 40-38 lead. The run would stretch to 16-4, as the Knights’ biggest lead was 49-44 with 13:04 remaining.
WSU responded with an 8-0 spurt, as Morris sparked it with a follow dunk after setting a screen for Shamet then crashing down the lane. Then Frankamp scored six straight points to give WSU a 52-49 lead, making two mid-range jumpers and a high floater in the lane.
After only playing three minutes in the first half, Willis came in with timely plays down the stretch for the Shockers. He finished a three-point play, connected on a jumper, came up with an important offensive rebound, then fed Morris for an alley-up during a 9-3 run to establish a 64-55 lead with 4:17 remaining.