Wichita State’s Rashard Kelly falls to the ground after he was fouled in the first half against at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle
Wichita State’s Rashard Kelly falls to the ground after he was fouled in the first half against at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State Shockers

WSU takeaways: How Rashard Kelly took WSU back to its roots in UConn win

By Taylor Eldridge

teldridge@wichitaeagle.com

December 30, 2017 04:10 PM

HARTFORD, Conn.

Wichita State’s 72-62 victory over Connecticut at the XL Center on Saturday will go down as the Shockers’ first victory in the American Athletic Conference.

Landry Shamet (16 points, five rebounds, six assists), Conner Frankamp, and Austin Reaves combined to knock down 11 three-pointers and Rashard Kelly (11 points, 12 rebounds) was the motor that powered the No. 8-ranked Shockers to their 11th victory of the season.

Here are takeaways from Saturday’s win.

Kelly takes WSU back to its roots

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Wichita State doesn’t win the game without the energy and effort of Kelly. He may not have scored down the stretch, but his rebounding and defense were vital to WSU’s success.

Kelly understands his role and executed it to perfection on Saturday, spurring a dominant rebounding performance in the second half. After UConn had the upperhand in the first half, WSU outrebounded the Huskies 27-12 in the second half and grabbed 52 percent of its own misses — led by Kelly’s six offensive rebounds.

“This team looks to me as a leader and I love it, I really enjoy that role,” Kelly said. “That’s what I do. I bring the energy and effort and try to spark my team that way. You have to be mentally and physically tough to make it happen.”

Wichita State men's basketball beat the University of Connecticut in WSU's first game in the American Athletic Conference in Hartford, Conn.

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WSU also delivered stingy defense down the stretch, holding UConn to nine points in the final five minutes on 3-of-10 shooting.

Although Connecticut has struggled offensively all season, WSU’s defense still produced one of its better defensive performances. The Shockers held UConn to under 39 percent shooting and 0.89 points per possession.

“You’ve got to love it,” Kelly said. “You can’t just want to play defense when it’s convenient. You’ve got to love the little things, the grind. It’s a whole process and we’re getting there.”

The players credited assistant coach Kyle Lindsted for a scouting report.

“He scouted them to perfection,” Reaves said. “Whatever they did, we knew what was coming next. We knew their tendencies, which way they like to go, how they like to shoot it.”

Those tendencies helped lead Reaves to the right spot twice to take charges, plays he celebrated more than any of his three three-pointers.

“(Charges) are one thing that coach really loves,” Reaves said. “He preaches it all the time and he takes pride in all of the little things. That’s what us as players try to do to get more minutes.”

That alley-oop to Shaq

The three-pointers by Shamet and Frankamp on back-to-back possessions will likely be remembered as the game-turning sequence, but to get there WSU first needed a crucial basket when UConn trimmed the lead to 56-53 coming out of a timeout with 5:03 remaining.

During that timeout, WSU coach Gregg Marshall pulled out one of his favorite man-to-man sets — a backdoor screen for Morris to free him up for an alley-oop lob. Sure enough, UConn came out in man and Zach Brown buried Morris’ defender on the screen and Shamet lobbed it for a Morris dunk to restore WSU’s lead to 58-53.

A minute later, Shamet and Frankamp delivered the dagger.

“They played us mostly zone and we were running some sets against the zone and getting the ball where we wanted, but we weren’t finishing,” Marshall said. “So when they switched to man, we knew we could probably get them on that. We hadn’t run it the whole game. They hadn’t seen that particular set before. We usually execute that really well.”

The key to it is the screener (Brown in this case) sneaking up the lane to catch Morris’ defender by surprise. If Brown’s defender doesn’t immediately back-pedal toward the rim, Shamet is throwing the pass.

“I saw (Brown’s defender) stuck with Zach,” Shamet said. “He kind of saw a little bit of what was going on, but didn’t get a jump on it. I just threw it up and Shaq always goes up and catches that.”

Flight delay doesn’t stop WSU

Wichita State owns the nation’s longest road winning streak with nine straight wins on the road.

Since the 2013-14 season, the Shockers are 44-6 in true road games — the most road wins and the best record in the nation. But Saturday’s road win didn’t come without some adversity.

The Shockers were scheduled to leave from Wichita early Friday afternoon and to practice at the XL Center that night. But when WSU arrived at the airport, it was told the flight crew was unavailable and their flight would be delayed until 6 p.m.

The team returned to Koch Arena for its practice, then made the two-and-a-half hour flight to Hartford, Conn., arriving around 9:30 p.m.

“You have to deal with adversity on the road, that’s why they’re called road games,” Marshall said.

The first American experience

It was a memorable debut for WSU on the road for its first American game.

UConn fans sold out the XL Center, which holds 15,564, for the first time since February 2016 and provided the big-time atmosphere that was missing from many road trips in the Missouri Valley.

Taylor Eldridge talks about Wichita State’s men’s basketball first game in the American Athletic Conference. They defeated the University of Connecticut 72-62. (Dec. 30, 2017)

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“I expected the UConn fans to be like they were,” Shamet said. “They came out in big numbers and were loud and passionate and it was a cool atmosphere to finally start playing in conference.”

Although the Huskies didn’t give their fans much to cheer for on Saturday, the XL Center was at its loudest when UConn briefly took a second-half lead and agin tied the game at 49 with nine minutes remaining.

WSU passed the test on its first conference road game, outscoring the Huskies 23-13 in the final nine minutes.

“When it was tied there, it got really loud,” Reaves said. “You just have to stay with your team in those tough moments and pull through.”

Taylor Eldridge: 316-268-6270, @tayloreldridge