Here's a fun fact for you. Did you know that prior to Wichita State and Syracuse achieving the feat this season, no team ever, in the history of Division I basketball, had reached a Final Four and then started the following season at least 22-0? Or that the Shockers are 36-4 in the last calendar year?
The Northern Iowa fans didn't care. They had defeated seven of the last eight ranked opponents to set foot on their home court.
It almost sounded as though they were saying"You and I..." as they drowned out nearly everything else at the start of the game, perhaps appropriate given the home court advantage Northern Iowa's fans are known to give their favorite team.
After Ron Baker rolled his ankle diving after the opening tip and UNI got uncontested put-backs on a couple early possessions, it seemed an unusually ominous 6-3 lead, particularly with Cleanthony Early's shoulder injury after an awkward fall. But the Shockers would regain their composure, and their offensive stride, to stay ahead most of the first half.
The Shockers were passionate from the get-go; from Baker's dive on the tip, to Kadeem Coleby's aggressive shot-blocking, even Chadrack Lufile nearly killed a cameraman with his giant feet chasing a loose ball. And that was just the first six minutes. Cleanthony Early used his quickness to his advantage and racked up 16 points in the first half, in a game where only two players didn't score between the two squads.
The Panthers held their own throughout the first frame, thanks in large part to both their timely long range shooting and Seth Tuttle's ability to repeatedly slip a screen and get open for easy baskets. Tuttle racked up 10 points of his own as part of Northern Iowa's 44-37 halftime deficit.
Coach Gregg Marshall, always looking for some motivation for his team to Play Angry, found out that one of the Shockers' warm-up hoops wasn't lowered in time, and he used that as a chance for his fourth-ranked, undefeated team to feel disrespected. But at the half, he said that by itself just wasn't enough.
"We might have played angry, but we didn't play very smart," Marshall told ESPN's Mark Adams at halftime. "That disappoints me. Too many mental errors, too many breakdowns on little things we tried to tweak defensively ... We've got to play angry, but at the same time, we've got to execute and be solid."
It didn't really get better early in the second half, as the Shockers were called for three fouls in the first minute of the second half, two of which were on offense, and two of which were on Cleanthony Early. Suddenly, the Shockers' top scorer spent eleven straight minutes on the bench.
Then Coleby picked up two quick fouls, and suddenly both Early and Coleby were glued to the bench with 15:18 left to play. Where in the world would the Shockers turn now, to get paint presence on either end of the floor?
Turns out the answer was as simple as Darius Carter. A couple of screen and roll baskets for Carter and more great ball movement leading to a wide open three for Tekele Cotton, and suddenly the Shocker lead was 56-44, Carter's quickness and fresh legs eventually wore down Tuttle, who had no real backup on the bench.
A transition three from Matt Bohannon got a very quiet crowd back into the action when the Panthers cut the deficit back to single digits at 60-52, but the Shockers came right back with a 6-0 run to push the lead back to 14 before Cleanthony Early finally returned to the game with 7:23 to play.
The Panthers flirted for a little longer, but it was with cutting the deficit to single digits, not with taking the lead. Early never added to his 16 first half points, but Cotton and Carter finished with 18 and 15 points, respectively to give the Shockers five players with double-digit points.
The Shockers' schedule only gets easier from here, as they head home to face Southern Illinois before a trio of games against the bottom of the conference (Evansville, Loyola and Drake). With the talented depth Gregg Marshall is putting on the court every night - Baker was one of five players with double-digit points, one of five players with at least four rebounds, and one of three players with at least four assists - there is little reason for Wichita to end the regular season without a loss to their name.
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