There was no waving the walk-ons into this game with five minutes to play.
This was serious business. A dirty, low-down brawl that tested Wichita State’s toughness after a fluffy season of playing in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Shockers, who managed to beat Dayton 64-58 in the NCAA Tournament’s first round Friday night, hadn’t played a game decided by single digits since Feb. 1, when they won at Drake by eight points.
Even three of Wichita State’s four losses have been decided by 10 or more points. It’s been that kind of season.
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Wichita State players Landry Shamet, Rashard Kelly and and Zach Brown, along with coach Gregg Marshall, answer questions after the Shockers beat 7th-seeded Dayton 64-58 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis.
Dayton made sure this wasn’t that kind of game.
The Flyers defended Wichita State at every turn. The Shockers struggled to find a flow and their starting backcourt of Landy Shamet and Conner Frankamp were suffocated by Dayton’s pressure defense. The Shockers had only 24 points before a Rashard Kelly three-pointer at the first-half buzzer.
But they trailed by only two points at halftime. And that was the key. Wichita State made things just as difficult for the Flyers.
To find a way to win this one, Gregg Marshall had to knuckle down. His players had to reach deep. And they did, they found a way.
“It was definitely something a little brand new to us from how we’ve been in the Missouri Valley,” said Wichita State junior forward Zach Brown, one of the rare players who shined offensively with 12 points and who made all three of his three-point attempts. “We just grinded it out. It was a tough game. The Dayton Flyers are an amazing team that’s won a lot of games. None of it came easy tonight.”
Playing in the Missouri Valley Conference doesn’t prepare a team for the rigors of the NCAA Tournament. But going to practice every day with Marshall does. In a season in which 27 of the Shockers’ 30 wins had been by double digits, Marshall hasn’t relented.
Wichita State is chasing big prizes and they don’t come available until March. Ultimately, Marshall and his players knew there would be a team that pushed them, shoved them and made them earn a win.
“I didn’t doubt,” Marshall said when asked how he thought his team would react to a tussle. “I was disappointed, though, in the first half. I thought we were playing passively. I thought we were not executing. The three words I talk about — verve, vigor and vitality we didn’t have those things.”
The second half was better. The Shockers finally discovered a hole or two in Dayton’s defense. Marshall switched up his lineup frequently, looking for a key.
“We played with much better energy and passion in the second half,” Marshall said. “We were tremendous on the glass, plus-19 against a veteran, tough team.”
Rebounding was one expression of the Shockers’ toughness. So were eight blocked shots, about half of which seemed to come on one Dayton possession late in the game when the Flyers were fighting to get close. Markis McDuffie stuffed a shot or two and so did Kelly, whose rise to Shocker prominence continued with eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
But Wichita State shot 39.6 percent and made only 6 of 20 three-point attempts. Frankamp, who has been killing it from the three-point line for six weeks, couldn’t shake Dayton defender Kyle Davis until he finally found an opening with 1:27 left for his only made shot of the night, a three-pointer to give the Shockers a 58-51 lead.
Even in a game in which points and good shots were tough to come by, the Shockers did what they normally do in other facets of the game. They held Dayton to 31 percent shooting. Outside of senior guard Scoochie Smith, who had 25 points and made 9 of 17 shots, the of the Flyers were 9 of 41.
“The thing we were able to do was to stop their runs,” Brown said. “We stopped as many runs as we could and executed when we needed to. But all in all, it was a big grind. I’m proud of everybody for overcoming just the challenge of being in a close game.”
It was that.
Dayton built the biggest lead of the first half, five points, before Kelly’s late three-pointer. Neither team was able to create any kind of lead in the second half until a Brown three-pointer gave the Shockers a 51-45 lead with 5:40 left.
But the Flyers fought back. It wasn’t until Wichita State pushed its lead to 61-53 with 25 seconds left that the Shockers could exhale.
And it was fun, finally, to see them pushed. One of the big questions about WSU going into the tournament was how it would react to a close game, to being pushed, to playing a team that could approach the Shockers’ toughness.
This was no blowout. But it proved more about Wichita State that a February win over Evansville ever could.