EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall never likes to see an opponent shoot 51 percent from the field.
However, if his team compensates by creating a slew of turnovers and converting most of them into points, it is a tradeoff he can accept.
The fourth-ranked Shockers turned 18 Evansville turnovers into 23 points, making the difference in an 84-68 Missouri Valley Conference win Sunday at the Ford Center.
“You have to give up something to get something,” Marshall said. “They shot a high percentage, but we got into passing lanes and forced turnovers. I thought we were a half-step quicker to their spots than the last time we played them.”
In the teams’ first meeting, an 81-67 victory for Wichita State on Feb. 1, the Purple Aces jumped out to a 25-12 first half lead before the Shockers got going on the defensive end. This time, Wichita State forced a turnover on the game’s first possession, and guard Fred VanVleet scored in transition.
It was the start of a trend. Seemingly any time they had to get a stop to quiet the crowd of 8,802, the Shockers made inexperienced Evansville — which started two freshmen and three sophomores — cough it up. Wichita State finished with 14 steals.
“We hurt ourselves with the turnovers,” Aces freshman forward Blake Simmons said. “Our offense hurt our defense at times.”
In becoming the 21st team in Division I history to open a season with 27 straight wins, Wichita State (27-0, 14-0 MVC) led for the last 30 minutes of the game and kept pace with Syracuse as the only unbeaten teams in Division I.
Guard Ron Baker scored 15 of his game-high 26 points in the first half for the Shockers, while VanVleet stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points, eight rebounds and five steals. Forward Cleanthony Early added 13 points and seven rebounds, while guard Tekele Cotton kicked in 12 points.
More important, Cotton, with help from Baker, forced Evansville guard D.J. Balentine into a sub-par game. Balentine entered the day tied for sixth in Division I scoring at 23.2 points per game, but made just five of 17 shots and scored 19.
“I think he’s the strongest defender I’ve played against this season,” Balentine said of Cotton. “He’s tough and so physical. But it’s really a team defensive effort with them. If you get past him, you have (centers Darius) Carter or (Kadeem) Coleby to back him up. They make it hard to score.”
Lithuanian center Egidijus Mockevicius took up slack for Balentine, making all seven of his field goals and compiling a 19-point, 10-rebound double-double. Simmons, the son of Aces coach Marty Simmons, added 12 points.
Evansville made 24 of 47 field goals (51.1 percent) and moved the ball beautifully at times, compiling 20 assists. However, its inability to consistently handle Wichita State’s ball pressure undermined its upset chances.
“I don’t think we anticipated getting so many steals,” VanVleet said. “It gave us a little bit of confidence guarding them. We had a few breakdowns, but we were mostly in the right place at the right time.”
The Shockers expanded their 38-32 halftime lead to 49-35 with 16:14 left on VanVleet’s layup. However, the Aces fought back, getting 10 consecutive points from Mockevicius in just over two minutes and cutting the deficit to 65-60 on his bank shot with 6:09 left.
Evansville turned it over with a chance to draw within three, though, and Cotton converted a driving layup at the other end. That started a game-clinching streak that saw Wichita State score on eight straight possessions.
“We weren’t really concerned with getting many steals,” Marshall said, “but when you’re beating them to the spot … Even though they shot 51 percent, I think our defense played really well.”
NOTES: Wichita State is the highest-ranked team to ever play in Evansville. DePaul was ranked fifth when it visited old Roberts Stadium on Feb. 9, 1981. … With G Ron Baker in the starting lineup, the Shockers are tough to beat. They are 40-2, dating back to last year, with Baker as a starter. … The Purple Aces dipped into their past Sunday, wearing orange sleeved uniforms. That tradition started in the 1940s under coach Arad McCutchen, who believed sleeved jerseys offered his team more
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