After his team lost a nine-point lead in the final 65 seconds of regulation, Wichita State men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall had to think about what kind of message he wanted to send to his young group.
WSU had led for 36 minutes, but none of that mattered with Connecticut holding all of the momentum and a raucous crowd at the XL Center desperate to see the Huskies complete a miraculous comeback.
Teams can think they have mental toughness, but they don’t really know until moments like that, when the players have to dig deeper than they ever have. Marshall knew WSU had it; he just had to exact it.
“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.’”
Over the next 10 minutes, WSU played its most resilient basketball of the season and prevailed with an 89-86 victory over Connecticut in double overtime. The No. 23-ranked Shockers improved to 15-1 overall and 3-0 in American Athletic Conference play, the last unbeaten team in the conference.
Jaime Echenique had never played 37 minutes before. Dexter Dennis had yet to bust out of his offensive slump. Grant Sherfield had never faced a defense like UConn’s full-court press, which resulted in him turning the ball over five times. Morris Udeze hadn’t played more than 18 minutes before his name was called in the second overtime.
But Marshall continued to believe in all four and that belief was rewarded when all four made clutch plays down the stretch.
“I don’t know if we proved anything to ourselves because we’ve known it,” WSU freshman Tyson Etienne said. “We’ve always had that self-confidence in our team.
“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. 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.”
Echenique has struggled with his endurance since he arrived at WSU and had not played more than 29 minutes in a game before Sunday. When Marshall designed the game plan against UConn, he wanted to make Echenique the focal point. WSU would play inside-out, which was dependent on a great performance by Echenique.
Echenique delivered, as the 6-foot-11 senior center finished with a season-high 17 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
“I trust all of these guys so much, so I knew that it was my turn to step up,” Echenique said. “All of these guys want to win so much and they want to get better. I know what I can expect from them. I want them to be able to count on me too.”
The sophomore season for Dennis has not gone as planned with the 6-foot-5 wing mired in a rut that led to a three-game leave of absence earlier this season to clear his mind. In his third game back with the team, Dennis looked more like the freshman star he was than at any other point this season.
Marshall empowered Dennis by keeping him on the floor in the first overtime and Dennis, who finished with 16 points (the most points he’s scored since Nov. 9), delivered two of the biggest shots. The first, he drilled a go-ahead three-pointer to give WSU a 74-73 lead with 3:20 remaining in the first overtime. After UConn took the lead back, Dennis responded with a strong move baseline with an up-and-under finish with a foul. The three-point play put WSU up 77-75 with 2:25 left.
“It’s great to have him back, man,” Marshall said. “I can’t tell you how much I care for that kid.”
Marshall had called on Sherfield at point guard so many times this season that it was easy to forget he was a freshman. But that was never more apparent than in the late situations Sunday when UConn’s full-court pressure sped up Sherfield, usually so in control, and forced bad decisions.
A Sherfield turnover late in regulation was part of the implosion by the Shockers in the final minute and another turnover in double overtime gave UConn a possession with the chance to take the lead.
“We kind of gave the game away at the end of regulation,” Marshall said. “(UConn) did a wonderful job making plays to come back, but my young guards struggled a little bit with the pressure for the first time.
“We’ve got some things to iron out and get better at, but that’s why I’m gainfully employed.”
Through those rough moments, Marshall stuck with Sherfield. He believed in him, even when he made mistakes, and trusted him on the floor deciding the game, which meant everything to the freshman guard from Wichita.
That’s why he was able to step up to the free throw line with 26 seconds remaining in double overtime with WSU clinging to a one-point lead and drain two straight free throws. Those negative thoughts were out of his head, as trained by Marshall to focus solely on what’s next.
“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.”
But in order to close out the game, WSU needed a timely charge taken by Udeze, the sophomore who was called upon when Echenique fouled out with 3:41 remaining in double overtime.
Marshall had gone with Echenique for the final 11 minutes of regulation and all five minutes of the first overtime, meaning Udeze hadn’t played in approximately 45 minutes of real time.
But when his number was called, Udeze came up big. His offensive rebound which led to a free throw put WSU up 85-81 and when UConn’s Alterique Gilbert drove the lane looking to trim WSU’s 89-86 lead, Udeze slid over to take a charge that gave the Shockers the ball back.
“That shows you how deep we are,” WSU sophomore Erik Stevenson said. “Guys are always staying ready. That’s a big thing for us, staying ready. They got their chance today and they helped us get a big win.”
This was just the second true road game of the season for WSU and Sunday’s road crowd at the XL Center was by far the most intimidating environment the Shockers have played in this season.
An extraordinary effort was required on Sunday for the Shockers to escape with a victory after their late-game collapse and an extraordinary effort is exactly what they delivered when it was required.
That’s an encouraging step forward for WSU, which completes its first conference road swing on Wednesday at Temple.
“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.”