Erik Stevenson shouldered the blame and promised change following Wichita State’s embarrassing 33-point loss at Houston.
Four days later, he went out and backed it up.
Stevenson scored a game-high 27 points and added eight rebounds and five assists to spur Wichita State to a statement 75-58 victory over Central Florida at Addition Financial Arena on Thursday. That snapped the Shockers’ three-game losing streak. WSU improved to 18-6 overall and 6-5 in American Athletic Conference play, while UCF (13-11) fell to 4-8 in the AAC.
“It wasn’t like I was putting any pressure on myself, like it was an ‘Erik-get-back-on-track’ type of night,” Stevenson said. “They were just kind of leaving me open and I was making shots. I did take the blame though on that skid we had. It’s not a coincidence. There’s a correlation between if I’m playing bad, then the team is losing. When I was playing good, the team was 15-1.
“Hopefully this kind of makes up for those last six, seven games.”
In what very well could prove to be a crossroads in the season, the Shockers made the decision to fight instead of wallowing in their misery after losing five of their previous seven games. After a lifeless performance in the worst loss of the Gregg Marshall era on Sunday, WSU held an emotional, spill-all meeting on Monday to clear the air.
Whatever was said spurred significant changes on Thursday, including a new starting five that featured freshman Noah Fernandes, and his per-game averages of 0.8 points and 7.6 minutes, for the first time. WSU’s offense made 48.4% of its shots, its second-best mark since Dec. 29, and had 19 assists on 30 baskets. Sophomore Dexter Dennis also finished with seven points, nine rebounds (five offensive), a career-high five assists and two steals.
“We just got everything off our chests,” said WSU freshman Grant Sherfield, who had a team-high six assists. “We talked about all of the things we needed to talk about and got everything out there. Just hearing what others had to say I think helped us put our feeling aside and play unselfish basketball. Monday really helped with that.”
It was another suffocating performance by WSU’s defense, which held UCF to 31.7% shooting and outrebounded the Knights by 17 on their home court, where they had just beaten Tulsa four days earlier.
WSU played with better energy, moved the ball more crisply and, most importantly, made shots. You can thank Stevenson for that last part.
While it would be foolish to pin WSU’s problems over the last month on any one player, Stevenson took blame for the team’s offensive struggles after the Houston loss. It is true that Stevenson was averaging better than 14 points per game during WSU’s 15-1 start and just 5.6 points during its 2-5 stretch.
“He’s been struggling, but we’ve kept playing him even though his numbers were abysmal,” Marshall said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. As good as he was early, he was that bad the last (seven) games. But man, he looked good tonight and nothing has changed from the beginning of the year to the middle of the year to now. It’s just players have to perform in the situations they’re put in against the teams we have to play. It was good to see him get back in his groove tonight.”
After entering the game as the team’s first substitute, Stevenson made four straight shots and scored 11 points during WSU’s 15-2 run that established a 19-9 lead after eight minutes. UCF trimmed that to six points, then Stevenson helped spur another WSU run — this time a 14-0 run over the next five minutes that expanded the first-half lead to 20 points.
It was an example of the best version of WSU: on one end, a dominant, suffocating defense that limited UCF to one guarded shot; on the other, WSU was playing team basketball again. The best example came when Dennis passed up a good shot for a great one, as Fernandes swished a wide-open three-pointer (his first since Nov. 19) that his teammate had created for him.
After he scored 17 first-half points, you would think that UCF would make it a priority to stay attached to Stevenson. But that wasn’t the case in the first three minutes of the second half, as Stevenson was wide open for all three three-pointers that he calmly swished.
“This got us back on track, for sure,” Stevenson said. “We got to playing Shocker basketball.”
Like all road games in the American, WSU’s win didn’t come without adversity.
UCF made its charge midway through the second half, as its home crowd was energized to see the Knights trim WSU’s lead to 49-39 with 12 minutes, 39 seconds remaining. With WSU in desperate need of a run-stopping basket, it was Fernandes of all Shockers who delivered the much-needed relief with a drive and off-balanced finish on a floater in the lane.
It was the highlight of an all-around impressive performance by Fernandes, especially considering he had only played 45 combined minutes in the last 16 games over the last two months. Fernandes played a career-high 25 minutes on Thursday and finished with a career-high seven points, tied for the second-most on the team, with two assists and two turnovers.
“I’ve been telling him that his time is coming and I really believe he’s going to be a really fine player,” Marshall said. “I just want him to stay positive, which he has. He’s stayed positive through everything. He actually spoke up on Monday and had some nice things to say and encouragement to his teammates to do the right thing. And then his practice on Wednesday was dynamite. His energy that he brought was something that I thought we needed and he produced.”
It was Fernandes’ shot that seemed to calm the storm for the Shockers. WSU absorbed UCF’s rally, then turned around and finished the Knights with a 10-0 run that featured two Trey Wade dunks, another jumper by Fernandes and capped by a jumper by Tyson Etienne for 61-41 lead with 8:37 remaining.
WSU’s lead did not dip below double digits for the final eight minutes. The Shockers have now won all five of their meetings against UCF, including two in Orlando, and have scored at least 75 points in each of those games.
The Fernandes’ promotion was by far the most successful of Marshall’s changes following Monday’s big meeting with the team. Not only did Fernandes start for the first time, but Grant Sherfield was included in the starting five for the first time in the last 16 games and Wade began the game on the bench for the first time in his brief WSU career.
It was the kind of response that WSU needed, following such poor play for the past month. The Shockers have the opportunity to build a winning streak with home games coming up against bottom-tier teams in Tulane (on Sunday) and South Florida (next Thursday) at Koch Arena.
“There was definitely progress made tonight,” Dennis said. “But it’s only the first step. We still have to continue to get our swagger back and start playing the way we’re supposed to play and the way that past Shockers before us have played. It’s a process, but I think today was a really big first step.”