Saturday afternoon began late for those joining the Wichita State Shockers from the comfort of their couches. #MACtion was ruling the day on ESPNU with Ohio taking Toledo into overtime, and keeping the country waiting to watch the No. 4 team in college basketball.
But then there is the little ticker in the corner of the screen, running and running, and watching as the Shockers fall behind, first by six, then 10, then 12. Something is happening in Kansas, and there is no Wizard to help this team.
Only that is a mirage, just like the Emerald City, just like the delusional dreams brought on by tornado-thrown debris that crashed into Dorothy's head.
When the broadcast switches location to Charles Koch Arena, in full technicolor black and yellow glory, Evansville is in control thanks to a perfect shooting day. Not one shot by the Purple Aces had missed. A mirage for sure -- this is not sustainable.
And then CLANG, the first shot misses more than eight minutes in. The sound awakens the Shockers, a team whose defense drives their offense to a greater extent than almost any team in the country.
They start to play, and the moments following that miss start to happen in glimpses of what has made this team amazing all season long. They are combinations of Anticipation, Hands and Pressure.
Evansville doesn't know what hit them and they begin to foul to slow this momentum. Only it is too late. Anticipation, Hands, Pressure. Here they come.
Ron Baker looks out from under the mop of hair on his brow. He sees Duane Gibson bringing the ball up the floor. He watches his eyes as Gibson scans around the pressure for the open man.
Near the Wichita State bench, there is a purple shirt. If Gibson is perfect, he can thread the ball there. But it will require him to be perfect, because Baker already knows that shirt is there. He knows the ball is going there.
The ball is released and Baker breaks from the center of the floor. He is on it before anyone on Evansville can react. The ball settles into his hands and he runs along the sideline, taking it to the basket. No one even moves to stop him. Anticipation.
Fred Van Vleet is small, at least compared to everyone else out on the floor. You can forget about his speed. He spins around the Evansville players and then homes in on the ball. His hand darts out somehow reaching around Jaylon Brown, nipping the ball.
This is so fast you can barely see the action until they slow it down for the replays. The ball knocks to Darius Carter, who tosses it back to Van Vleet for the layup. Hands.
Everyone in the building counts down, watching the shot clock dribble off seconds from 35. Evansville had just broken the huddle on a timeout, their second in the half to stop a patented Wichita State run. They are on the verge of breaking after darting out to a lead that reached 15 points against the No. 4 team in the country.
The yellow shirts close in two at a time, blocking the path of the Evansville players. The Purple Aces have nowhere to go. Pass. But then the path is blocked again. The announcers start to yell about the time violation. And then just as the ball looks as if it will break the plane, the whistle blows. Ten seconds. Pressure.
Kadeem Coleby stands in the lane, and watches Tyler Ptacek driving at him. He is in position to pounce but Ptacek doesn't see it. The Evansville guard thinks he has a clear path to a score, and potentially help to stem the tide that has been Wichita State.
But Coleby bounces and as Ptacek releases the shot toward the hoop, it suddenly takes a 180 degree turn and heads back down into the ground. Coleby's arm seems to have come out of nowhere, but he anticipated the little teardrop.
He is off like a dart down the court and his reward for great defense is a pass from Van Vleet. He takes it to the basket and is fouled. He will make one of two free throws, a big smile beaming on his face. Anticipation.
Cleanthony Early watches the eyes of Gibson. He sees dread. The game is slipping away from Evansville. And then Gibson hesitates as he looks for help. Early's hand moves fast, like a knife darting into his man. The ball is away.
Early is on it fast, and Gibson is too slow to react to the shock of losing control. His second hesitation dooms him. Foul. Early is heading to the line. Hands.
D.J. Balentine runs around the Evansville half. He moves from sideline to sideline. He has to try and get open and take back control of the Purple Aces offense. Only he has a shadow, one that wears a yellow jersey with the number 32 on it.
When Balentine stops, Tekele Cotton's arms surround him, moving up and down like some sadistic obstacle at a mini-golf course. Balentine runs back to the other sideline and curls around to the top of the key.
Cotton is right there, blocking the path for the Purple Aces to get him the ball. So Balentine runs into the paint, only it is too late. Wichita State has forced the turnover while Balentine struggled and struggled to get free. Pressure.
Cotton stands next to Balentine. Adam Wing dribbles near the top of the key and tries to control the offense in the face of Wichita State's defense. He tosses toward Balentine.
But the ball will never make it there. Cotton is already down the court with it. He moved a split second earlier. Wing gives chase almost as soon as he threw the pass. He knew he made the mistake. Cotton had beat him before he ever through the pass. Cotton lays the ball high off the glass and in. Anticipation.
Pressure makes you react badly. All that Evansville saw all in their vision was yellow: yellow shirts, yellow signs on the court, the yellow stanchion holding the basket.
After a while, it turned the Evansville players blind with rage. They started lashing out. They made foul, after foul, after foul. They totalled 25 of them. Pressure.
Gibson grabs the inbounds pass late in the second half. This game is over in all but the time on the clock. The Shockers have used their defense to turn around their offense and make things go from elation to desperation for the Purple Aces.
On him is Van Vleet, who has rarely left the floor during the afternoon. His arms start working like clockwork, first blocking the path down the floor, and then blocking the exit pass back into the middle of the backcourt. Gibson is trapped on the sideline next to the Shocker bench and you know that this will end badly.
Van Vleet's arm shoots forward and tips the ball. Somewhere in there he makes contact with Gibson and the ref blows the whistle, even as the ball goes sailing into crowd behind the home team bench. Van Vleet just stands there looking at the rest of his team, a small, whisper of a smile on his face, knowing that he won that interaction even if Gibson will be heading to the free throw line.
He turns and walks up the floor. Later that smile would grow as he sat on the bench, a well-earned rest as the final minutes ticked away. Hands.
The buzzer sounds with Wichita State up 81-67, and the Shockers move to 23-0. They have used their defense to once again bring a game under their control.
The cameras don't find Gregg Marshall as the game ends. They are focused on showing Van Vleet saunter down the handshake line, after the announcers have bestowed on him the title of the best point guard in the country -- that is probably a topic for another day.
Today belonged to the defense, and that had to put a smile on Marshall's stone visage. He will work this team hard in the coming week, especially after they fell behind as they did. That is no joke to him, even if it was a fluke of streaky shooting by the Purple Aces.
His defense won a game again. Five blocks, seven steals, 11 turnovers. Those are the stats that were important in this game. They mean more than what any one player may have scored, at least to Marshall.
The weird nightmare is over. There is no place like home for the Wichita State Shockers. They are still undefeated, and everyone is watching.
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