Key statistics: WSU out-rebounded the Panthers 40-24 and made one more basket (26 of 48) despite taking 11 fewer shots. WSU made 54.2 percent of its shots (its second highest mark in MVC games) and those edges made surviving 15 turnovers possible.
How the game turned: Tekele Cotton’s three capped 12-1 run after the Panther cut WSU’s lead to 44-43 early in the second half. Ron Baker and Darius Carter teamed up for the key sequence on a fast break. Carter ran past defenders looking elsewhere and Baker found him for a dunk and foul. The three-point play gave WSU a 53-44 lead with 15:17 remaining.
Records: WSU 25-0, 12-0 MVC; UNI 11-13, 5-7
- Cotton scored in double figures for the third straight game with 18 points. Before that, he reached double figures once in the previous nine games. As Cotton’s outside shooting dropped in January (he went through a 1-for-14 stretch) teams sagged off him to clog driving lanes, content to let him shoot. They will need to re-think that strategy after Cotton’s last three games in which he is averaging 14.6 points and making 15 of 26 shots. In addition to making 8 of 14 threes, he shows a knack for driving to the basket. “He was great; he was confident,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “People aren’t playing him, they’re backing off. We want him to shoot the ball.” When Cotton makes shots, Baker and Fred VanVleet can carve up defenses by faking, driving and dishing to Cotton behind the arc. “A lot of the defenders have been in the gap, heavily, guarding him, so when he is hitting shots it kind of stretches the defense out more,” Baker said.
- WSU’s physical edge took over during that stretch in the second half. The Shockers kept the Panthers on the perimeter, shooting guarded jump shots, and limited them to one shot. When WSU had the ball, Carter scored on a layup and a dunk. VanVleet made a layup. Baker drove to the basket and drew two free throws. “Their defense and rebounding has been every possession, every game,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “We handled ourselves better than we did at their place, from a competitive, block-out, rebound standpoint. But it wasn’t at a high enough level. That’s an area where our team needs to learn. We got another reminder tonight why they are who they are.”
- Saturday’s No. 25 was Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. “He played angry,” Marshall said. The Shockers assign an athlete to each game to increase the focus on that night, not the big picture.
- I apparently assigned more importance to a brief appearance by a 2-3 zone defense in the second half than Marshall did. Up 53-44, the Shockers pressed and fell back to a zone. UNI’s Max Martino shot an airball. Cotton made a three, as the shot-clock buzzer went off, for a 56-44 lead. The Shockers went back to man defense and I figured it was something Marshall saved for a specific situation to throw UNI off. It appeared to work, even if Marshall said he used it mainly to protect his team from fouls.
- WSU’s Cleanthony Early played only five second-half minutes because of foul trouble. Even with limited action, he continued his superb play in MVC road games. He scored 16 points on 4-of-8 shooting and averages 20.3 points on 36 of 67 shots in six MVC road games.
- Baker continues a cold streak from three-point range after missing all three at UNI. He is 3 for 17 in his past four games.
- UNI forward Nate Buss warmed up and might return sooner than expected after undergoing knee surgery on Jan. 30. “He worked out a little bit the past two days,” Jacobson said. “I’d like to get to the point where he can work out without having that swelling. We’ll see if he can get there by Wednesday.” UNI, which has lost five of six games, could use a quick return by Buss, a 6-9 junior who averages 10.8 points and 4.8 rebounds.
- As is always the case, teams rise and fall during MVC play and WSU’s remaining schedule looks slightly more challenging than two weeks ago. Southern Illinois, Tuesday’s opponent at Koch Arena, has won four straight and sophomore guard Anthony Beane is on a tear, averaging 23.7 points in those games. Bradley has won five of seven games since losing to the Shockers on Jan. 14. The Braves left Koch Arena 1-4 in the MVC and are now 6-6.
Next up: Southern Illinois, 7 p.m. Tuesday (Cox 22)