Adversity in late-game situations is an experience in college basketball that cannot be simulated or replicated in practice.
Nothing could prepare Wichita State’s freshmen from last season for the crunch-time minutes they had to play for coach Gregg Marshall. Baptism by fire is a phrase that applied here.
That group of first-year players took their lumps. They allowed a late lead against Davidson slip away at the Charleston Classic. They blew an 11-point lead with less than four minutes to go at home to Temple in an eventual overtime loss. They couldn’t close out the game against Lipscomb, armed with a seven-point lead and less than four minutes left, to play for the NIT championship.
“Last year we would get a lead and then they would come back and we’d end up losing the game,” said WSU’s Erik Stevenson, who was one of those freshman last season. “I was looking around at JB (Jamarius Burton) and Dex (Dennis) and they didn’t know what to do either. We’re looking around like, ‘Where is the answer coming from?’
“Because coach can only do so much. We have to go out there and make plays and be poised.”
But through those lumps, the Shockers took lessons — lessons that they’ve used during a 5-0 start to this season after they defeated Oral Roberts, 68-59, at Koch Arena on Saturday.
Now sophomores, Stevenson, Burton and Dennis are the ones making plays and remaining poised for WSU when adversity strikes like it did on Saturday when Oral Roberts trimmed a 15-point lead down to three points, 58-55, with 4:47 remaining.
There was no panic from the Shockers. Instead, Burton and Stevenson both responded with pull-up jumpers to extend WSU’s lead to 62-55. The Golden Eagles didn’t threaten again after the back-to-back baskets.
“I looked up at the scoreboard and they cut it down to three and I had the feeling this year that it’s nothing,” Stevenson said. “We know what to do now and we’re going to handle this and we’re going to come out on top.”
It’s true that WSU has faced five outmatched opponents (and all at Koch Arena), which makes its adversity so far this season rather on the tame side. But after last season’s opening-night debacle against Louisiana Tech, the Shockers have proven mentally tougher this season to beat Texas Southern despite 24% shooting and to fend off a gritty Oral Roberts team on Saturday.
To make it to 5-0 before the Cancun Challenge is something of a feat, especially when teams like UCLA (Hofstra), Pittsburg (Nicholls State) and Alabama (Penn) have all lost buy games at home in November. And just one year ago at this time, WSU was 2-3 on the season.
“If you look at college basketball, every night teams lose to teams at home to teams they probably shouldn’t lose to,” Marshall said. “Oral Roberts has beaten Wichita State in the past. Heck, they even beat us once in a scrimmage back in the day. So you have to perform.”
Burton echoed Stevenson’s sentiments about sensing a difference while on the court this season compared to last. After Oral Roberts clawed to within three, WSU closed out the game with a 10-4 run.
“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.”
After not having the luxury of experience last season, Marshall is leaning on his experienced players this season in the crunch-time moments.
Once Oral Roberts rallied to within three points on Saturday, Burton, Stevenson and Dennis didn’t leave the court as WSU’s three guards. Marshall also relied on Trey Wade, a junior-college transfer with one year of Division I experience at Texas-El Paso, and rotated between senior Jaime Echenique and sophomore Morris Udeze at center.
“In those situations it’s pretty evident I go with the experienced guys,” Marshall said. “Guys who are a little older, guys who have been in that situations before. We won some games, went to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden with that group with Jaime and JB, Erik and Dex and then Trey is a grown man.
“The bench contracts a little bit in those situations because I want to go with experience and we can’t have errors that can cost you a game at that point.”
So far this season, Stevenson, Burton and Dennis have earned Marshall’s trust because they are hardly making any errors. Stevenson has 18 assists to just two turnovers in 131 minutes, a turnover rate of 4.1% that ranks 29th in the country. Burton (11 assists, two turnovers) has also been excellent in ball handling, while Dennis (six turnovers) is keeping his mistakes to a minimum.
WSU still isn’t a great shooting team, but it continues to win because its limiting turnovers at a top-15 rate in the country to give the offense more chances at scoring.
It’s a winning formula the Shockers hope to continue in Cancun, where they will play South Carolina on Tuesday and then either West Virginia or Northern Iowa the next day.
“We know other teams are going to make runs, so we just have to lean on each other and keep grinding it out,” Burton said. “We might not blow everybody out, but if we grind it out and continue to play hard then we can still get the win.”