Jaime Echenique is back and Wichita State remains undefeated.
That's the news Shocker fans wanted from Saturday, as the star center made the season debut of his senior year after missing the last month because of a broken left hand and the Shockers survived a late charge to defeat Oral Roberts 68-59 at Koch Arena to improve to 5-0.
There were some nervy moments on Saturday, but WSU passed the test of sweeping a five-game homestand against outmatched opponents. Now the real challenges begin, as the Shockers leave 4 a.m. Sunday for Mexico to play South Carolina on Tuesday and then either West Virginia or Northern Iowa on Wednesday in the Cancun Challenge.
For some perspective, the Shockers were 2-3 at this point last season.
"It felt like we were searching for our fifth win sometime in February last year," said WSU sophomore Erik Stevenson, who finished with eight points, eight rebounds and a career-high nine assists on Saturday. "It's good to get off to a 5-0 start. I think it was good for us to have a game like this right before Cancun to show that we can handle some adversity."
Jamarius Burton (7 of 9 shooting) and Trey Wade (six rebounds, three blocks) both scored a team-high 14 points, while Tyson Etienne chipped in 12 points. WSU shot 48.3 percent from the field but committed a season-high 13 turnovers and allowed a season-high 13 offensive rebounds.
The win didn't come easy, which shouldn't be a surprise considering Oral Roberts hung with Oklahoma State and Tulsa on the road in single-digit losses.
In the end, WSU relied once again on its defense, which limited Oral Roberts to 32.3 percent shooting from the field and 13 percent shooting on three-pointers.
"We'd pull away, then they'd cut it back," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "They're a really tough team and a physical team and a big, strong team.
"But if you have to have (defense) in your back pocket. That's got to be constant. On nights where you give up 13 offensive rebounds and the ball doesn't go down and some of your best players don't play particularly well, you can still win."
A win looked all but assured when WSU freshman Grant Sherfield drilled his first collegiate three-pointer, then found Etienne in transition for back-to-back threes and a 46-31 lead midway through the second half.
But the Shockers fell back into bad habits and allowed Oral Roberts to methodically work its way back in the game, ripping off a 6-0 run to trim WSU's 15-point lead down to three, 56-53, with 5:52 remaining.
That's when WSU's most experienced players rose to the occasion to deliver.
"Last year we definitely didn't know what to expect," Burton said. "If a team made a run, nervousness kicked in. We were all just like hoping we could get the win. Now this time around, we're all confident in our abilities and our experience. Down the stretch, we just had to execute and that's what we did."
With Oral Roberts within three, Burton swished a pull-up jumper for a 60-55 lead. After a defensive stand, WSU extended its lead to 62-55 when Stevenson connected on another jumper. Trey Wade gave WSU a 64-56 lead when he made a short jump hook and Stevenson found Dennis on a deep pass against the press for a highlight-worthy dunk for a 67-57 lead and essentially secure the win for the Shockers.
Boosting the Shockers was the return of Echenique, the 6-foot-11 center who was WSU's most efficient and impactful player last season. Echenique played sparingly on Saturday, but had a productive 11 minutes with five points, four rebounds and two blocks.
"First of all, I love the kid. He's so fun to be around, and he's such a wonderful young person," Marshall said of Echenique. "He wanted to go (Saturday). He didn't want his first minutes in Cancun. He wanted to get a little prep and we needed him."
"I've been talking to my family about this situation about the minor setback," Echenique said. "To start the season with an injury, it wasn't the way I wanted to start. But it's amazing to get back. The crowd welcomed me back in an amazing way. It felt amazing to be back out there helping my guys out."