By Paul Suellentrop
Tribune News Service
ST. LOUIS — Just when Wichita State figured out the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, Illinois State blocked its way again.
Fourth-seeded Illinois State upset the top-seeded Shockers 65-62 on Saturday at Scottrade Center, denying the defending champions a chance to repeat and a chance to break the 1-all tie with second-seeded Northern Iowa.
The scene resembled 2012, when fourth-seeded Illinois State knocked off the top-seeded Shockers 65-64 in the semifinals. Those Shockers went home disappointed and secure in the knowledge they wrapped up an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. The current Shockers (28-4), ranked No. 8 nationally, are in the same situation.
"I love the fact we're in," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "I love the fact we're going to get a good seed. We're in the NCAA Tournament, so that's what we're going to dwell on."
WSU's next big day is March 15, when the NCAA bracket is revealed. Saturday's loss might cost them a seeding spot or two, although a week of games in other tournaments will affect those calculations by the NCAA selection committee.
The Shockers wanted to dominate in St. Louis, like they've dominated the past two regular seasons. Last year's title gave WSU its first since 1987 and ended 24 years of frustration in Arch Madness. A team that usually gets it way when writing history failed to become WSU's first repeat champion.
"We don't like to lose, especially not in that fashion, coming down to a one-possession game," WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. "It's just heart-breaking. In that moment, you're just numb."
Illinois State (21-11) plays in Sunday's championship game against No. 11 Northern Iowa. The winner claims the MVC's automatic bid. With UNI also a lock for the NCAAs, Illinois State's upset raises the possibility of three MVC teams making the 68-team field.
"I think this group truly isn't satisfied," Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. "I think we truly came down here to win three."
Guard Daishon Knight scored 25 points, 16 in the second half. His three-pointer with 2:21 to play gave the Redbirds the lead for good.
"If you're going to beat a team like a Wichita State, you're going to have to have somebody have a special day," Muller said.
The Redbirds will take another defensive effort like Saturday's. Their zone defense ruled the day by keeping Wichita State out of an offensive flow, holding it to 4-of-18 three-point shooting, and protecting the Redbirds from fouls. Illinois State outscored the Shockers 17-4 at the foul line.
The Shockers won many of the key stats, out-rebounding the Redbirds 34-30, outscoring them 42-16 in the lane and 16-9 on second-chance points. It wasn't enough to slip past a team that made 15 of 17 free throws in the second half and 12 of 19 shots. WSU committed its seventh team foul with 9:41 remaining and the Redbirds took advantage by making 12 straight free throws in the final 6:25.
"When you're in the bonus with so much time on the clock, it puts us on our heels," VanVleet said. "You give up that type of shooting percentage, bad things happen."
WSU's last hope passed when VanVleet missed an off-balance three at the buzzer. The Shockers trailed by five points with 39 seconds to play. Free throws by VanVleet and his layup, after a Redbirds turnover, cut the lead to 63-62 with 17.1 seconds to play. The Redbirds ran 10 seconds off the clock before the Shockers fouled. Knight made two free throws with 7.6 seconds to play for a 65-62 lead.
VanVleet took the ball and dribbled through a press, then was forced to the sideline before shooting. He wanted to pass to Baker in the corner. The Redbirds covered that option, leaving VanVleet to take a tough shot on the same end of the court he missed a guarded three at the end of last season's NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky.
"It always feels good," he said. "That's not always the end result. When I got to half court, I contemplated calling a timeout. I probably should have. I was trying to put one up in the air and give it a chance and it didn't go."
VanVleet led WSU with 19 points. Baker added 13, all in the second half, and Tekele Cotton scored 12. Those three combined to shoot 3 for 16 from three-point range. WSU's offense worked best against the zone when the Shockers passed the ball or dribbled into the lane. That didn't happen often enough and Darius Carter's foul trouble hurt their offensive options.
So did the shot-blocking presence of Illinois State center Reggie Lynch, who swatted five shots and made it difficult for Shockers who did venture into the lane to score. With Lynch in the game, Illinois State could aggressively cover Baker and VanVleet to limit their open shots.
"We didn't handle it very well, and obviously didn't execute it well enough," Baker said. "It was putting a lot of pressure on us guards. We'll put that on us."
Illinois State's zone defense and Knight's heroics put the Redbirds ahead most of the second half. They almost failed to finish it off, however.
WSU took a 58-56 lead on Cotton's bank shot. The Shockers switched to a zone, a move that seemed to paralyze Illinois State. Knight decided to end the stalemate with a three-pointer for a 59-58 lead.
After WSU's Carter missed a jumper, contested by Lynch, MiKyle McIntosh made two foul shots for a 61-58 lead with 1:47 to play.
A trap forced a turnover near half-court and Baker grabbed the ball, fell, and passed to Evan Wessel. He passed to VanVleet, but the delay allowed the defense to catch up. Lynch blocked VanVleet's layup.
McIntosh made two more foul shots for a 63-58 lead with 39.4 seconds to play.
WSU won both regular-season meetings with perfect late-game execution. On Saturday, the Shockers came up a few shots and a few plays short. Disappointing, but not fatal to any of the season's big dreams.