Wichita State survives defensive battle, VanVleet leads with career night

Evan Pflugradt

Nearly a month ago, Evansville’s D.J. Balentine raced down the court with six seconds left in the game, a desperation three-point shot would send his team to overtime in Charles Koch Arena. He traveled at midcourt.

The nation’s active leading scorer, Balentine was held without a made field goal for the first 25 minutes of play Sunday; No. 22 Wichita State swept Evansville 78-65.

Balentine haltered in a senior campaign worthy of conference Player of the Year, but All-American point guard Fred VanVleet had a notable reminder to the candidate trying to claim his first title — he won it first. VanVleet was named MVC Player of the Year in 2014.

With the game tied 10-10, VanVleet looked to challenge driving baseline on Evansville guard Mislav Brzoja. Trying to draw contact, VanVleet’s shot fell off the mark.

Though VanVleet knew the accolades that he’s piled up time and time again have not been the result of settling.

VanVleet challenged on the next possession. Splitting defenders, he tossed in a layup for his first points of the game.

“I know the coaches get frustrated with [my shot selection] sometimes,” VanVleet said. “ I stayed focused on driving to the rim. Sometimes I come up empty-handed, but I keep doing what I do.”

An Evan Wessel three-pointer festered a five-point WSU lead and the game started to take the shape of a traditional Gregg Marshall win.

Evansville center Egidijus Mockevicius, the nation’s leading rebounder and the Valley’s leading shot-blocker, reached high into the air for a ball only the 6-foot-10 big man could pull down; he raised for a three-point-play pulling the Aces back in close.

Gregg Marshall’s All-American backcourt was not impressed. VanVleet drove baseline to end a two minute scoring drought.

On the other end, Ron Baker blocked Mockevicius’ shot out of bounds.

Despite a challenged half of foul trouble, the Shockers covered one of the Valley’s top offensive threats; they pressured the Purple Aces with a season-high nine blocks, eight coming in the first half.

With an 11-point halftime lead Gregg Marshall had feelings of slight insecurity.

His team entered the half on a 17 percent three-point percentage, a lone three-pointer by Evan Wessel tallied on the stat-sheet.

After holding the conference’s leading scorer without a made basket through a half, Marshall knew things wouldn’t last; he called for his team to up the offensive intensity.

It’s almost as if the words were spoken directly into VanVleet’s listening ear.

VanVleet split the Purple Aces’ defense and rallied five-consecutive points, pushing a 16 point spread in favor of the Shockers.

VanVleet continued to lead the charge, challenging in the paint the Purple Aces made him earn it at the charity stripe.

He could not miss. VanVleet was perfect on all 15 attempts from the stripe, tying a school record.

“I felt like I should’ve had 25 attempts,” said VanVleet after countless challenged shots. “I just try to stay calm and get to the line.”

Knocking down two free-throws with a little over a minute to play VanVleet tied his career-high of 26 points. With two more free throws a possession later, he beat it.

VanVleet wasn’t finished leaving his mark on Evansville. With under a minute left in play he pulled the ball out of Balentine’s hands and raced down for a layup — 30 points. And with a final opportunity, VanVleet broke the defense, ultimately ending the game with another driving layup — 32 points — breaking his career-high set not but a few weeks ago.

“This is a special opportunity,” said VanVleet.