Score: WSU 82, SIU 76
Key statistics: WSU’s Cleanthony Early scored 39 points. Ehimen Orukpe blocked seven shots, scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
How the game turned: The Shockers started the second half with a 10-0 run, sparked by three Saluki turnovers, to go up 44-43. It wasn’t easy, but that burst was enough to get WSU back in the game. Early scored five of those points, adding to a three-pointer by Malcolm Armstead and two Tekele Cotton free throws.
Records: SIU 7-8, 0-4 MVC; WSU 15-1, 4-0
- Covering Wichita State often means focusing on defense, passing, teamwork, etc. Not after Wednesday’s game. It’s all Cleanthony, all the time. He is the sixth Shockers to score 39 or more points, doing it for the 11th time. Early is picking up his game in MVC play, which goes against the conventional wisdom that things get tougher in January against teams that scout the heck out of the opposition. Early is averaging 22.5 points and making 60 percent of his shots (31 of 60) and 56.5 percent of his three-pointers (13 of 23) in conference games. The improvement from behind the arc is the big difference. He entered MVC play making 7 of 35 threes. “I’ve just been getting in the gym every day,” he said. “The more you shoot shots, the more you get a feel for the ball, get your confidence up. The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
- WSU coach Gregg Marshall knows there is a lot to like about Early’s game. He scored in the post. He made mid-range jumpers. He made threes. He can get better, which Marshall loves. “His handle is a little above average, not great yet,” Marshall said. “When he gets to the point where he can score off the bounce, right or left, consistently, he’s going to be a tough guard. And he’s already tough.”
- Ehimen Orukpe’s game is growing more complete and more confident as he is playing more minutes. He could always block shots. He is doing other things defensively – getting position in the lane, deflecting passes, redirecting dribblers – that are important. He matched his career-high with 10 points (for the second time in three games) and has made 14 of 20 shots in four MVC games, while averaging 7.5 rebounds.
- WSU’s biggest problem was turnovers, and their timing. SIU converted nine first-half turnovers into 17 points. Marshall calls those kind of turnovers “atomic bombs.” It’s one thing to lose the ball and hustle back to play defense. WSU turned the ball over in positions where the Salukis could turn them into easy baskets. “I just told them to hold on to the freaking ball,” Marshall said. “Don’t throw the ball to the other team.”
- SIU coach Barry Hinson, playing short-handed, said he drew inspiration from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” He was willing to try anything, and it worked. SIU played a lot of zone and switched its defenses frequently to keep the Shockers off balance. “It was straight guerrilla warfare,” Hinson said. “When your enemy has so much more strength than you, you’ve got to go to guerrilla warfare.”
- SIU was coming off an 85-68 loss at Evansville. It had chances to fold in the second half against WSU and didn’t. “We didn’t quit tonight,” Hinson said. “We quit at Evansville.”
- SIU’s Desmar Jackson scored 28 points, which might keep him around Carbondale the rest of the season. Hinson said he told Jackson to shape up or turn in his jersey. He sounded serious. “I told Des two days ago that I’ve got a bus ticket for him on Sunday – he’s got to prove to me at Wichita and against Indiana State that he wants to be a player,” Hinson said. “He’s late. He’s been disrespectful. He hasn’t practiced hard. He’s been lazy. I said ‘If you want to be a Saluki, then you better start getting after it. If you don’t, you’re going home before second semester starts.’ I still told him in the locker room he’s got to get through Saturday’s game before I make my decision.”
- In all, that was one of the odder nights at Koch Arena. Weird game, where WSU uncharacteristically relied one player to score almost half its points, the Salukis kept rallying in the second half and SIU shot better than usual from three against a good defensive team. Entertaining, yet unexpected. Add in Kirstie Alley sitting behind Garrett Stutz and Jamar Howard’s rare appearance and it was quite an evening. When I think about Turgeon-era players who would have excelled for Marshall, Howard tops the list. Marshall would have loved his energy and hops. And, monkeys rode dogs.
- Evansville (10-6, 3-1) looms as a tough, tough game for the Shockers. The Aces are always good at home. Colt Ryan is capable of taking over a game. It will be WSU’s third road game in four, over 11 days. Winning at Bradley was difficult. Beating SIU was difficult. It won’t surprise me if Evansville is more difficult.
Next up: at Evansville, 3:35 p.m. Sunday