It took 10 more minutes than it should have, but the Wichita State men’s basketball team emerged with its first road win in the American Athletic Conference season.
The No. 23-ranked Shockers couldn’t protect a nine-point lead in the final 1:05 of regulation, but they bounced back to defeat Connecticut, 89-86, in double overtime on Sunday at the XL Center. WSU (15-1, 3-0) remains the only unbeaten in the American, while UConn fell to 10-6 and 1-3 in the league.
WSU also extended the nation’s second-longest road winning streak to eight games, which is the third road winning streak of at least eight games in program history. Since the 2013-14 season, only Gonzaga (61-9, 87.1%) has won more road games than Wichita State (57-15, 79.2%).
“A team like us, a young team, we needed to go into an environment like this, and go on the road, and come back and win it,” WSU freshman guard Tyson Etienne said. “I think it was a big plus for us. Everyone wants to walk in and win by 20, but college basketball isn’t like that, especially a conference game on the road.”
“It shows our toughness and our grit and our will to win,” WSU sophomore Erik Stevenson added.
But it’s also true that WSU had to dig deeper than it should have to find all of those things.
WSU’s youth showed at the end of regulation. The Shockers turned the ball over twice against UConn’s full-court press, then committed a shot clock violation leading by three points with 11 seconds remaining.
It’s a divisive situation for coaches — do you play out the possession on defense or foul to prevent a game-tying three? WSU coach Gregg Marshall opted not to foul and UConn came up with the needed game-tying shot, a corner three-pointer by Sidney Wilson with 1.6 seconds left.
“We had three guys in the game with four fouls,” Marshall explained. “I told the other two guys, ‘You can foul right before half court.’ But those two guys weren’t on the ball. At that time, we were in such foul trouble I didn’t want to risk fouling. With three guys in the game with four fouls, it makes it a little tougher.”
After the collapse, Marshall said he didn’t see any panic in his team before the overtimes.
“After we lost the (nine-point lead), it’s my job to try to be a leader and positive,” Marshall said. “I made every single one of them look me in the eye and I said, ‘If you guys keep fighting and you keep being tough, we’re going to win this game.’”
The first overtime brought out the best play from Dexter Dennis in his sophomore season. After taking a three-game leave of absence, Dennis is beginning to show more flashes of the freshman star he was for the Shockers.
Dennis, who finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, delivered a crucial go-ahead three-pointer that put WSU up 74-73, then answered a UConn basket with an aggressive drive baseline with an up-and-under finish while being fouled. The three-point play put WSU up 77-75 with 2:25 remaining in the first overtime.
“It’s great to have him back, man,” Marshall said. “I can’t tell you how much I care for that kid.”
But UConn tied the score at 77 with 32 seconds left, leaving WSU with the last shot. Jamarius Burton pulled up for a 17-foot jumper that rimmed out, then Etienne nearly won it for WSU with a tip-in that also rimmed out.
Etienne would get his revenge at the start of the second overtime, as he caught the opening tip-off and drove straight to the basket for the layup and foul. He also added a pair of free throws that put WSU up 82-79 in the first minute. WSU never trailed in the second overtime.
“Defense, rebounding and toughness travel,” Etienne said. “This was a mentally tough game, so we just had to stay together and stay resilient and come together for the win.”
For freshman Grant Sherfield, it was a complex game. He finished with a career-high five turnovers, as WSU committed a season-high 21 turnovers, but Sherfield also delivered in clutch moments.
When UConn trimmed the deficit to 82-81, it was Sherfield who attacked the broken press and finished a contested layup for an 84-81 lead with 3:21 remaining. UConn again trimmed the deficit, to 87-86 with 33 seconds left, then Sherfield responded with two clutch free throws.
“You’ve just got to have a next-play mentality,” Sherfield said. “I’m young. I’m going to learn. Everybody on our team is pretty much young. We’re all going to learn. The best way to learn is through experiencing it, so I’ve got to take what I learned this game and try not to do the same mistakes next game.”
Morris Udeze slid over to take a crucial charge, but the Huskies had a chance to tie the score again in the final seconds after Burton missed two straight free throws. But this time UConn’s game-tying three rattled out.
Jaime Echenique, who played a career-high 37 minutes, delivered his best performance of the season with a team-high 19 points and eight rebounds. The Shockers held UConn to 38.2% shooting from the field, which helped overcome UConn’s 42-24 advantage in free throw shots. UConn was led by a game-high 25 points from Christian Vital.
“Credit to Wichita State,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said, “they just exemplify a lot of great qualities. What Gregg has been able to do there with toughness, winning, and all of that. Credit to them winning a great game today.”
WSU led by as many as. 12 points in the second half, courtesy of a 9-2 spurt that put the Shockers up 53-41. But UConn proved resilient and responded with a 9-2 run of its own and set up for the crazy finish to regulation.
Winning at Connecticut meant something a little extra to the players who were on WSU’s team last season.
It was at Connecticut where last season’s Shockers lost by 20 points and were sent soul searching. So it was only fitting that on Sunday this season’s Shockers found their first road win of the AAC season in dramatic fashion.
“It’s pretty obvious this team has come a long way and these kids have really improved and they’ve grown up in a year,” Marshall said. “That was rock bottom (at UConn last year). That was the last very poor performance that we had last year. Since then, we’re 29-5 and have a lot of good wins, including this one.”
With the unbalanced schedule in conference play, this will be the last meeting between WSU-UConn in the regular season. It could be the last for the foreseeable future, as the Huskies are leaving the American to join the Big East Conference after this season.
“We wanted to come in here and get a win one last time before they go back to the Big East,” Stevenson said.