The Wichita State Shockers will be the first team since 1991 to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. Sophomore guard Fred VanVleet erupted for 20 of his 22 points in the second half, and junior guard Tekele Cotton poured in 20 points as the second-ranked Shockers defeated the Indiana State Sycamores 83-69 in Sunday afternoon’s MVC championship game in St. Louis. Manny Arop and Justin Gant led the way for the Sycamores with 18 points apiece.
Even though the Shockers dominated the game from the opening tip, the Sycamores put up a formidable fight and refused to concede until VanVleet pretty much single-handedly put the game away in the final minutes. The Shockers led by 10 points at halftime, and after the break they steamrolled back onto the hardwood to increase their lead to 15.
However, the Sycamores then launched a 14-3 run as they overcame their first-half hesitations to get more aggressive on both defense and on the boards. Senior Jake Odum, along with Arop, led the way to bring the Sycamores within four, but that’s as close and they got before VanVleet launched his offensive onslaught and took over.
With Odum benched after picking up a fourth foul only midway through the second half, VanVleet capitalized, doing a little bit of everything to put the Shockers back up by double-digits. He penetrated the lane for easy layups, found teammates left unguarded and helped them tickle the twine as well, forced turnovers on the defensive end, and along with Cotton, set off a firestorm of three-pointers.
When the final horn sounded, the hot shooting backcourt duo combined for 8-of-12 from behind the arc. The Sycamores managed to cut the deficit to single digits a few more times, keeping themselves in the game, but VanVleet decided with just over one minute to go that it was time to handle unfinished business and cement his team’s continued perfection in the win-loss column.
After drilling another shot from three-point range, he immediately forced a turnover after the Sycamores put the ball back in play, drove for an easy layup and sealed the win for the Shockers. The team continued to pick up right where they left off after making it all the way to the Final Four in last year’s dance, despite only earning a No. 9 seed. The Shockers will likely enter this season’s tourney as a top-seeded team.
Sophomore Ron Baker chipped in an additional 14 points for the Shockers, mostly from the free throw line, sinking 8-of-9 from the charity stripe. Senior Cleanthony Early and junior reserve Darius Carter also finished in double figures with 10 points apiece. Meanwhile, senior Chadrack Rufile came off the bench to lead all players with eight rebounds.
The last team to start the NCAA tournament undefeated, the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels squad, advanced to the Final Four but couldn’t quite win it all, falling to the Duke Blue Devils. The Shockers hope to fare better and bring a national championship back to Wichita, and Sunday they showed that they clearly have what it takes to make this happen.