RICHMOND, Va. — The season's first true road trip, to VCU, always promised to be Wichita State's toughest challenge in its non-conference slate.
Coach Gregg Marshall had to worry about how to prepare one of college basketball's most inexperienced teams for VCU's famed Havoc defense in front of a raucous crowd at the Siegel Center, which registered its 124th consecutive sellout on Saturday.
That was before a concussion prevented Dexter Dennis from playing for WSU, leaving Marshall with four scholarship guards to play a three-guard system. And before foul trouble began piling up in the first half, forcing Marshall to play a walk-on for the final five minutes. And before WSU lost its starting center, Jaime Echenique, to a foot injury midway through the first half.
The problems continued piling up for the Shockers and proved to be too much for them to conquer, as VCU won 70-54 on Saturday to improve to 8-4. The loss snapped the Shockers' three-game winning streak and concluded their non-conference record at 7-5.
"With Jaime in the boot at halftime and Dexter out and then Samajae (Haynes-Jones) saddled with three fouls, I knew it was going to be a daunting task," Marshall said. "At least they kept fighting, and that's the first thing you've got to do with a young team, let them know they have to fight for 40 minutes. We didn't buckle (Saturday). We buckled a little bit at Oklahoma.
"We just kind of ran out of horses there."
WSU finished the game shooting 21 of 59 (36 percent) from the field and 6 of 26 (23 percent) on three-pointers. Markis McDuffie led WSU with 16 points, while freshman Jamarius Burton added 12 points off the bench and Samajae Haynes-Jones scored 10. The Shockers outrebounded VCU by six, 38-32.
Issac Vann led four double-digit scorers for the Rams with 18 points, as VCU made 50 percent of its shots and forced WSU into 17 turnovers.
The bad news began piling up midway through the first half.
That lack of depth became a factor when Haynes-Jones picked up his second foul with 12:26 remaining, then McDuffie picked up his second foul with 10:59 remaining, forcing both of WSU's seniors to the bench.
But the biggest blow to the Shockers came almost immediately after they took their largest lead of the game, 24-17, with 8:14 remaining. On the next offensive possession, WSU center Echenique set a screen and rolled to the basket. Without much contact, Echenique went to the ground clutching his left foot.
Echenique has been WSU's leader in plus-minus this season and sure enough, the game swung in VCU's favor upon his exit. Echenique missed the final 27 minutes, but he did return to WSU's bench at the start of the second half wearing a protective boot on his left foot.
"I don't really know anything 100 (percent), but the trainer's initial observation is it's plantar fasciitis," Marshall said. "(The trainer) thinks it's not completely torn, but I've had it and that's a tough deal. It's very painful and Jaime will have to soldier on and try to figure out a way whenever he can to play with it."
Foul trouble continued to plague WSU when guard Erik Stevenson picked up his second foul with 6:20 remaining, which led to Marshall being forced to gamble with Haynes-Jones as his replacement. That gamble led to Haynes-Jones picking up his third foul with 4:58 left, forcing Marshall's hand at playing walk-on Eli Farrakhan for the final five minutes of the half.
Farrakhan performed about as well as could have been asked to for a first-year walk-on. While the Shockers did surrender their lead, they remained competitive and salvaged the half with a four-point possession by Morris Udeze when he scored with a foul, missed his free throw, rebounded his miss and scored again.
Although WSU trailed just 37-34 entering halftime, the significant foul trouble and Echenique injury had piled up into too much adversity for a short-handed team to overcome.
Any hopes of prolonging the competitiveness of the game were dashed when WSU missed its first 11 shots and went scoreless for nearly eight minutes with nine empty possessions to start the second half. By the time Jamarius Burton powered his way down the lane to score WSU's first points with 12:10 remaining, WSU found itself in a 53-36 hole.
"There seems to be the same lid with this team," Marshall said. "We just struggle to score, then we lose our focus with any type of execution. We tighten up and put our head down and go. That seemed to be the only way we could score in the second half."
Any concerns of the raucous road environment being too much for the Shockers to handle, at least early on, were calmed by a strong offensive start. WSU held a 5-0 lead after 30 seconds when Echenique scored on a lob, then McDuffie drilled a three. That seemed to help instill confidence in WSU's more inexperienced players.
The team's two seniors, McDuffie and Haynes-Jones, carried the Shockers early. Both finished acrobatic layups and combined for three threes, as they had 13 of WSU's first 19 points when the Shockers took a 19-15 lead into the second media timeout.
WSU's lead grew as large as seven points in the first half when Rod Brown finished a tip-in, then Burton connected on his first three-pointer of the season on an off-balanced, contested shot for a 24-17 lead with 8:14 remaining.
That's when things began going downhill for the Shockers.
WSU has a 12-day break before beginning American Athletic Conference play at Memphis on Thursday, Jan. 3.
"That's the deal with this, you've got to try to grow from these experiences," Marshall said. "We knew what it was going to be. A tough, a tough year for that matter. We've got to seek growth."