Shockers topple Utes at Intrust Bank Arena

Evan Pflugradt

Wichita State has victories in each of their last three games after topping Utah on Saturday for only the second time in program history and the first time since 1968. The Shockers defeated the Utes 67-50 at Intrust Bank Arena.

Redemption and revival has been the motto of head coach Gregg Marshall as the Shockers faced off in two postseason, resume-building victories over UNLV and then No. 25 Utah.

“We’re the most excited 5-4 team in the country,” said senior Fred VanVleet.

Since falling to a two-win and four-loss record after surrendering three-straight losses in Orlando two weeks ago, the Shockers have found a way to flip the switch on defense.

“This was a week of redemption and revival” Marshall said. “Maybe it was having our backs against the wall, maybe having people write you off for the NCAA Tournament pushed us.”

Since then, Wichita State has pressured opponents with high-fire defense. The Shockers held the Utes, who average 82 points per game, to their lowest score of the season — 50. The stern Shocker defense also kept the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV 32 points off their season average, also held to a season-low 50 points.

The Shockers pressured Utah into 12 first-half turnovers, in addition to holding the Utes to six field goals in the first half. The Utes would turn the ball over 19 times in the game, which led to 25 WSU points off turnovers.

“Wichita State’s defense is good, and they’re physical at every position,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “They are not a team that beats themselves.”

Standout sophomore forward Jakob Poeltl led the Utes with 11 points, a season-low, and nine rebounds. Poeltl was contained with a physical ‘three-headed monster’ in Rauno Nurger, Shaq Morris and Bush Wamukota. The defense pressured ball handlers and limited the offensive opportunities for Poeltl, who had just two field goal attempts in the first half.

“Our guys defended by being fresh and energized,” Marshall said. “We tried to limit their touches in the post, and when they did we sent the kitchen sink at them to dig it out.”

Utah surrendered a 1-4 assist-to-turnover ratio, with just five total assists in the game. Led by VanVleet’s six assists and Ron Baker’s five assists, the Shockers posted a commanding 15-3 assist-to-turnover ratio, two of the Wichita State turnovers coming off offensive charges.

With the help of VanVleet, recently returning from an injured hamstring, the Shockers have limited their last three opponents to an average of 51 points. The defense has shown how good a Marshall-led team can be, and the offense has followed suit.

Wichita State took an early 10-5 lead over the Utes led by back-to-back three-point baskets by Evan Wessel, and with that Wichita State found stride in what would be their best shooting performance in weeks.

The Shockers finished shooting 44 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three. Sophomore Zach Brown led the team in scoring with 14 points off of 5-7 shooting.

“Brown is becoming the player we thought he could be,” Marshall said.

Off the bench freshman Markis McDuffie added 13 points on 4-5 three-point shooting. The Shockers pushed the lead from four to 13 in the second half when McDuffie hit a three-point basket from the wing while drawing contact and falling to the floor, a foul by Utah’s Brekkott Chapman.

“When it went in I couldn’t believe it,” McDuffie said. “It was probably the first four-point play I ever had in my life.”

McDuffie has posted double-figure scoring in two games since being benched in the road loss against Tulsa. McDuffie is averaging 9.6 points in his last six games and is playing as a more determined freshman with no shortage of confidence.

“I have a lot of confidence in myself,” McDuffie said. “I love the crowd. I love the hype. Once the crowd gets to me I never stop.”

The sold-out crowd of more than 15,000 was plenty to fuel the hype for McDuffie.

Together at the small forward position, McDuffie and Brown combined for 27 points on 9-13 shooting and 5-6 from three-point range, a stat-sheet stuffer Marshall couldn’t overlook.

“I have to find more opportunities for them to play,” Marshall said.

As Wichita State rolled their way to victory another door opened for the Shockers. With time winding down on the shot-clock, sophomore guard Conner Frankamp raised for a contested two-point jumper that dropped in for his first career basket as a Shocker. On the next possession Frankamp would strike from three-point range, igniting the crowd as he posted a confidence-boosting five points on 2-6 shooting.

Frankamp was left without a field goal Wednesday while scoring just two points on free throws in his first game with WSU against UNLV. His two-point jumper with 54 seconds remaining Saturday ended a 0-8 Wichita State career shooting start.

“[Conner] is a big time player,” VanVleet said. “Whatever happens, happens. If he goes 0-20 [shooting], we still have his back.”

The Shockers are back over .500 with a 5-4 record, and more importantly they’re 3-0 in December with a chance at redemption.