Zach Brown made only a single shot all night for Wichita State, and it turned out to be the biggest shot of the game for the Shockers. With 19 seconds remaining, the sophomore drained a three from the corner that gave Wichita State a five-point lead over Evansville, and essentially seal what was maybe the toughest battle for Wichita State in conference at home in more than two years.
It was just one moment in the battle between the two Missouri Valley heavyweights that are expected to battle it out until St. Louis for the chance to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. It seems unlikely that the Valley will see two teams make the dance this season, but if the conference somehow pulled it out, it would be these two that are the most likely candidates.
The Shockers would win the slugfest 67-64, but if you had tried to write the script of how it would happen, you would have been way off.
You wouldn't have had the stars for Evansville being Jaylon Brown and Adam Wing instead of the D.J. Balentine or Egidijus Mockevicius. Brown scored 18 points, and ruled the second half for the Purple Aces as they mounted a comeback against the Shockers who had built a nine-point advantage. Wing was solid throughout the first half, keeping Evansville within striking distance of Wichita State, and forcing them to make big shots to maintain their lead.
In contrast, the dynamic duo were relatively cold Wednesday night. Balentine went just 6-for-17 from the floor and missed all four of his shots from long range. He uncharacteristically had five turnovers to only four assists. And that is without being hounded by a guy named Tekele Cotton on the opposite side of the ball. It is almost as if the ghost of Cotton still roamed the floor just looking for number 31.
Mockevicius suffered most from Balentine's lack of distribution on the night. The center had just four shots on the night and really struggled at the free throw line, shooting just 50 percent when he got free chances. He still managed 15 rebounds and three blocks, but broke his string of double-doubles with just nine points.
You would have been wrong on the other side of the ball too, where Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker had relatively cold nights themselves, especially so given the game was at Koch Arena. Van Vleet was more effective as the distributor on the night, notching nine assists, but he did have a nice sequence late that kept Wichita State ahead, featuring a stop jumper at the top of the key followed by a 3-pointer a few seconds later.
Baker would finish just 3-for-10 with three assists, but was essentially a non-factor despite his nine points.
Instead the story belonged to the interior play of Wichita State tonight. They effectively shut down Mockevicius, although it took a rotating cast to do so. Shaq Morris did his normal job of getting the fast start for the Shockers going, before disappearing.
Markis McDuffie continues to show improvement in his role off the bench for Wichita State. Each game, he looks more the future of the Shockers on the block. Tonight was just five points and four rebounds, but they came at a stretch in the first half when nothing else seemed to be working for Wichita State. Of all the players who contribute on the inside for the Shockers, he looks to be the best, even as a freshman, and despite the rest of the front court grabbing minutes last season.
Of course, that isn't counting Anton Grady, who showed again why he was such a major grab for the Shockers with his graduate transfer. The senior was 8-for-13 from the floor and grabbed seven rebounds while just annoying the heck out of Mockevicius on the defensive side. This was the hard-nosed basketball that he was used to when he played at Cleveland State and in the Horizon League, the kind that he wasn't always able to play when he was hampered by leg issues.
He would finish with 17 points to beat out everyone but Evansville's Brown, and was the real MVP for the Shockers even if he didn't have the big shot that you could mark in the box score.
It is a shame we have to wait until the end of the month to see this show again in Evansville, and that could be the difference for the Purple Aces, even if the referees seemed to be more in favor of the visitors on this night.
If that show is even half as good as this one, all the Valley fans are in for a real treat.
The Shockers will travel to Southern Illinois on Saturday to face one of the hottest teams in the league while Evansville returns home with a stretch of Bradley and Drake over the next week.