It’s been more than 24 hours and I am still riding the buzz achieved while sitting in my car, in my brother’s driveway, with my brother and his wife, listening to Missouri State knock of Wichita State 59-56 Jan. 9. It’s their first win there since 2007 and – at 5-0 with wins at Northern Iowa, Creighton and Wichita – puts the Bears squarely in control the Missouri Valley Conference race.
The Bears’ last win at Wichita came Feb. 20, 2007 (71-65), which is a long time ago. So long, that none of the current Bears were on the team back them. None of them knew what it felt like to come out of the Roundhouse with a win, or even the kind effort it really takes to escape their intact. Now they do.
And while Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Lutz is lamenting the Shockers’ lack of a go-to guy, Bears fans know they have a senior quartet that is nails under pressure.
MO State’s double-digit lead was gone. Completely. Whittled away from 10 in just under six minutes. That stretch saw the Bears turn it over twice and shoot 0-for-7 from the floor. Now Koch Arena was rocking at what some Shocker fans say is the highest volume they’ve ever heard. It would’ve sent a lot of lesser teams melting into a puddle. Not Mighty MO State.
Coach Cuonzo Martin called timeout and drew up a play for his offense that didn’t go exactly as planned, but the Bears made it work. Jermaine Mallett found fellow senior Adam Leonard with just enough space in the left corner to get off his shot and – despite failing to draw iron a couple of times in the first half – Leonard didn’t hesitate. He cast off from long range with a defender closing in and buried the go-ahead 3-pointer.
“That play was not really drawn up for me, but Kyle set a good screen and Will (Creekmore) had a good re-screen,” Leonard told the Springfield News-Leader. “I let it fly and made that shot. I was 3-for-13 before that. It didn’t matter in my mind. I hit the shot and we moved on.”
Creekmore, another Bears senior, then came up with perhaps the defensive play of the game, going up with his left hand to block a shot by Wichita big man J.T. Durley, then going across the lane to collect the ball and prevent the Shockers from getting a second-chance shot. In fact, Wichita State didn’t hit another field goal the rest of the night.
Nafis Ricks, the Bears’ fourth and final senior, hit one of two free throws later on to push Missouri State’s lead back to 2 with 24 seconds to play.
In all, MSU’s senior class combined for 37 points, 2o rebounds and 9 assists. WSU’s own five-member senior class (only four of whom played) went for 25 points, 21 boards and 2 assists.
Not to get too far ahead of things here (there are still 13 Valley games to play, six of them on the road), but we’re seeing the makings of a championship team. Great senior leadership, a legit star player (Kyle Weems), key role players (freshman wing Nathan Scheer, junior post Caleb Patterson, great defense, and clutch shot making.
And the nation is starting to notice, too. The latest Bracketology has Mighty MO State an 11 seed in the West Region, the Bears got a pair of votes in the latest Associated Press Top 25 and the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 has MSU third, behind St. Mary’s and Gonzaga.
But the NCAA Tournament is not a given. The case can be made that the Valley is a one-bid league this year, and if Wichita State finishes the season strong and wins Arch Madness, the Bears could be left out again come March Madness.
Of course, the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is on the court. Next step is Wednesday, Jan. 12, when Southern Illinois visits JQH Arena.
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