By Paul Suellentrop
Tribune News Service
ST. LOUIS — Top-seeded Wichita State is a veteran of these situations, so the Shockers displayed little concern or frustration in the opening minutes of Friday's quarterfinal game in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Surprise? Maybe a little from a team that just isn't used to coming out flat.
"It was hard for us to believe that they were up five and we were in the hole," WSU freshman Shaq Morris said.
It didn't last long, and the eighth-ranked Shockers plundered their way to a hard-to-watch 56-45 win over ninth-seeded Southern Illinois on Friday at Scottrade Center. WSU advances to Saturday's semifinals for the sixth straight season, three of those as the top seed.
The routine is familiar now — the lower seed gets loose in its Thursday game and usually plays well early in the quarterfinals while the top seed adjusts to the surrounding and the five-day layoff. Last season, Evansville led 20-19 before the Shockers bolted on their way to an 80-58 win.
"We came out a little flat and we just needed to find energy," WSU junior Evan Wessel. "New arena. We hadn't played in awhile. Stuff like that. No excuse for that. We've just got to find ourselves and play like we want to play."
WSU (28-3) will play fourth-seeded Illinois State on Saturday, its next step in repeating as tournament champions. SIU (12-21) finished with a losing record for the fifth straight season.
Guard Fred VanVleet led WSU with 13 points and Tekele Cotton added 12 for the Shockers, who made 4 of 16 3-pointers and shot 41.7 percent from the floor. Guard Jalen Pendleton led SIU with 12 points off the bench. Leading scorer Anthony Beane scored 10 points, six below his average. He made three of his first four shots and then missed nine of 10.
WSU forced 18 turnovers and held SIU to 16 baskets on 34-percent shooting. WSU scored 17 points off SIU turnovers and committed eight turnovers itself.
The Shockers use a full-court press for many reasons, strategic and emotional. Friday, they needed it for both, as an energy boost and to exploit a team that lacks a point guard and ranks last in the MVC in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. The Shockers trailed 15-13 when its full-court pressure altered the state of play.
"We just didn't come out aggressively enough in the first half," VanVleet said. "They did. The press changed the game and got us on our toes and being aggressive, got a lot of deflections, speeding the game up."
Ron Baker stole a long pass by SIU's Sean O'Brien, trying to throw over the press. Cotton's 3 gave WSU a 16-15 lead. After Beane missed a contested dunk, Cotton made two free throws. Cotton grabbed a lazy bounce pass by O'Brien and later made a foul shot for a 20-15 lead. SIU's next two possessions also ended in turnovers and Shaq Morris dunked for a 22-15 lead.
Five possessions in which SIU barely passed half-court four times. That gave WSU all the opening it needed. SIU coach Barry Hinson called timeout midway through the run, too late for his team to regain composure.
"We were paralyzed because we got afraid and we panicked," Hinson said. "I was pretty good until we opened up duck hunting season and threw a couple of ducks as passes. I'm going to have go to confessional tomorrow because of a couple of words I used during that span."
WSU finished its run with a dunk by Morris, following a 10-second turnover on the Salukis when WSU changed its press. The Shockers finished the half on a 15-5 run to lead 28-20 at halftime.
SIU cut WSU's lead to 39-33 in the second half before WSU pulled away and quieted fans from other schools who started to root for the underdogs. Cotton drove baseline for a reverse layup and a 41-33 lead to start WSU's clinching run.
After a steal by Wessel, Darius Carter's basket in the lane restored WSU's 10-point lead at 43-33. A follow shot by Rashard Kelly made it 46-35, WSU's largest lead.
SIU's offense broke down into a series of tough shots. O'Brien missed a spinning shot in the lane. Beane missed a floater. After VanVleet tied up Beane with the possession arrow in WSU's favor, Carter passed to Baker on a back-door cut for a layup and a 50-37 lead. Zach Brown's dunk, off a lob from VanVleet, made it 52-37.
It took longer than expected, and those few extra minutes by the starters may become an issue as the tournament wears on. On Friday, however, the top seed did what it needed to do and the Shockers are back in the semifinals.