ST. LOUIS — As far as No. 2 Wichita State is concerned, its 31-0 regular season is ancient history.
“As of now, we’re 1-0,” guard Fred VanVleet said following the Shockers’ 80-58 blowout of Evansville on Friday in the Missouri Valley Conference quarterfinals. “We’re going to try to go 1-0 again tomorrow and 1-0 on Sunday.”
The first one turned out to be pretty routine after the Purple Aces (14-19) hung with the top-seeded Shockers for the first 13 minutes.
Wichita State took command with a 20-7 run that gave it a 39-27 advantage, then scored 12 straight points early in the second half to end the game’s competitive phase and please a noontime crowd inside cavernous Scottrade Center composed almost entirely of Shockers fans.
Four players scored in double figures for the Shockers (32-0), who will meet either No. 4 Missouri State or fifth-seeded Illinois State in Saturday’s first semifinal.
Forward Cleanthony Early and guard Ron Baker each scored 17 points, while guard Tekele Cotton and reserve center Chadrack Lufile tossed in 11 apiece. Wichita State canned 50.9 percent of its field-goal attempts and drilled 10-of-21 3-pointers.
But, as usual, the Shockers’ effort was fueled with defense. They set a single-game MVC tourney record with 11 blocked shots, getting a career-high six from center Kadeem Coleby in just 15 minutes.
After Evansville converted 48.1 percent of its shots from the floor in the first half, Wichita State clamped down in the second half. The Aces’ free-flowing motion offense appeared stuck in quicksand as they made only 8-of-30 field goals.
“We knew it would be a tough game,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “They are so long underneath the basket. They really don’t give you anything easy.”
Playing about 16 hours after eliminating Drake in Thursday night’s tournament opener, the Aces simply appeared to run out of steam against a deeper opponent playing to secure a No. 1 regional seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Sophomore guard D.J. Balentine overcame a hip pointer and Cotton’s tough defense to pump in a game-high 31 points for Evansville, sinking 7-of-14 3-pointers. Balentine finished the season as one of the top 10 scorers in Division I at 22.8 points per game.
Center Egidijus Mockevicius contributed an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double for Evansville, but just four other players scored.
With Coleby, Early, Lufile and reserve center Darius Carter all denying access to the hole, the Aces turned down some closer looks and settled for more fadeaway jumpers as the day progressed.
“Any talk that they don’t deserve a number one seed is silly,” Balentine said of the Shockers. “What they’re doing is incredible.”
Creighton’s departure from the MVC to the Big East Conference left Wichita State without a definitive challenger for the MVC title, but the Shockers’ game-by-game focus has been resolute. They won 15 of their 18 conference games by double-figure margins, including their last six.
“We’ve had a lot of national attention over the last month or six weeks,” coach Gregg Marshall said of his team, “and I don’t think it’s affected them one bit. They’ve been able to stay locked in and focused.”
NOTES: Wichita State G Fred VanVleet and G Ron Baker, along with F Cleanthony Early, became the first trio from the same team to earn first-team All-MVC honors since 1973. … Evansville C Egidijus Mockevicius led the MVC with a 63.7 percent field-goal percentage, good for seventh in Division I. It’s the second-highest single-season mark in school history. … This was only the second time the Shockers and Purple Aces have ever met in the MVC tourney. Evansville won 79-71 on Feb. 27, 1999, the only season in which it won the MVC regular-season title.
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