Every story has an end, but none in Koch Arena were ready to open the final chapter as five Wichita State seniors said their final farewells.
Fans, players and coaches cried and celebrated as Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Evan Wessel, Anton Grady and Tom “Bush” Wamukota raised their jerseys in the air. A heartwarming final applause filled the stadium, honoring a cherished moment the seniors prepared for.
“There’s so much work we’ve put in and this is the best part about it,” VanVleet said. “Some of those practice days suck. Sometimes you’re miserable going to practice, going to weights, but when you get to experience a day like today it all pays off, it all makes sense.”
The seniors were able to enjoy their final moments down to the closing seconds and long after. With highlight-reel alley-oops, dunks and blocks, Wichita State defeated Illinois State 74-58, avenging their loss in Normal earlier this season. The players each took turns climbing the ladder to cut down the net in celebration of winning the MVC Tournament title.
The four and five-year seniors said they had this game circled for months; they wanted to leave the home-crowd on a high-note.
“It’s the last time we get to play here, there was no shortage of reasons, this one was important to us,” VanVleet said.
Seniors arrived early, Baker and Wessel were first spotted on the court five hours before the tip, VanVleet soon followed. From the get-go the three raced out to a fast start.
In the opening minutes, Baker connected on three free throws, and moments later a steal by Baker led to transition break ending with a driving layup by VanVleet to give the Shockers a one-point advantage over the Redbirds. Two trips later, a three-pointer by Baker made the lead four, VanVleet tallied an assist.
Baker hit another step-back jumper for eight points in the opening minutes. It was only enough to keep pace with the Redbirds, who connected on five of their first six shots, all three-pointers.
Baker rolled into a quick rhythm offensively, but after picking up two quick fouls, Baker took a seat on the bench. He played only seven minutes in the first half.
VanVleet took it as a chance for himself to lead the senior showcase.
VanVleet faked a defender and stepped back for an uncontested three-pointer. Wessel then tipped the ball out of Illinois State guard Paris Lee’s hands and passed ahead to a sprinting VanVleet. VanVleet threw up what appeared to be an errant pass to Markis McDuffie; McDuffie controlled it and threw it down for a one-handed slam dunk to finish off the alley-oop.
“It was a terrible pass,” VanVleet said. “When I let it go, I knew for sure it was either going to hit the backboard or go out-of-bounds. Markis found a way to get it in, he made me look really good. It was probably one of my top favorite plays I’ve had.”
VanVleet sent the arena into a frenzy after he connected for a long-distance three-pointer in the midst of a 27-9 WSU run with Baker on the bench.
“Throughout the game you could feel the pulse of the arena,” VanVleet said. “I made a couple of plays in a row leading up to it, as I was dribbling up it felt good, I let it go and it went in, and then the roof came off.”
VanVleet followed his shot with a steal, a defensive rebound and back-to-back assists. Wichita State entered the half with a 20-point lead on the Redbirds.
“It would have been hard for any team to beat us today,” VanVleet said. “Incredible fans, and the passion we played with, it’s all really special.”
He carried the same intensity into the second half. Pulling down the rebound off a missed ISU three-point jumper, VanVleet called his own number and split the defense for a layup in transition, he drew contact and finished a three-point play.
After a defensive stop on the other end, VanVleet called for the ball from Conner Frankamp.
VanVleet tossed up back-to-back alley-oops. The first, a baseline pass finished by Rashard Kelly; the second in transition half-court offense, a two-handed slam by Shaq Morris.
VanVleet finished with 16 points and handed out nine assists.
Grady scored 16 and gathered five rebounds. Baker added 10 points and Wessel snagged eight rebounds and three steals. Wamukota played in the final minutes.
With 3 minutes and 15 seconds remaining in the game, all five seniors shared the court together, it was the first time all season. In the closing minutes, Gregg Marshall pulled his seniors out one-by-one, and the crowd applauded, giving each senior a standing ovation.
“They’re leaders, they’re winners, they’ve taken us all on a tremendous ride,” Marshall said. “I feel like one of the luckiest coaches to have them here, all I did was put them together.”
Through hugs, cheers and an outpour of emotions the seniors were recognized in commemorative post-game celebration.
“Emotions hit me pretty heavily when I lifted my jersey up,” Baker said. “Our fan base is the real deal and they appreciate greatness.”
Senior day was a fitting end to one of the final chapters of three monumental careers, but the seniors want to continue to build on their legacies and extend this book for a few more chapters.
“Tonight was a special moment, I was glad to share this one with everyone,” Wessel said. “There’s been a lot of great moments, but there’s more to come.”