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March 10, 2014

Guts, sweat, tears: Sycamores fall to perfect Shockers

WSU tops ISU to take 34-0 record into NCAA tourney

ST. LOUIS — No one on Indiana State’s men’s basketball needed to say a word about the Sycamores’ 83-69 loss to Wichita State in Sunday’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game.

The tears that rolled down ISU coach Greg Lansing’s face spoke volumes.

The Sycamores gave it their all, made the Shockers sweat and walked out of Scottrade Center with heads held high. But against a team that still drinks from the tap of perfection, it wasn’t enough.

“When you put your guts into something and it means so much, to see the disappointment on the guys’ faces in our locker room, it’s tough,” said an emotional Lansing. “You want it so bad for them, and they deserve it, the Sycamores deserve it. They deserved a championship and they deserved to play in the NCAA Tournament.”

Justin Gant and Manny Arop co-led ISU with 18 points. Arop added seven rebounds. Jake Odum had eight points, seven assists and five rebounds.

WSU improved to 34-0 and enters the NCAA Tournament unbeaten, the first team to do so since 1991 when UNLV pulled it off.

ISU (23-10) was left to ponder the what-ifs. What if Jake Odum hadn’t been called for a blocking call when it appeared WSU’s Ron Baker tripped him with 10:08 left? What if Odum hadn’t injured the knuckle on his right index finger when he tried to draw a charge on Baker earlier in the half? What if ISU hadn’t taken one too many quick shots when Odum exited the game?

The what-ifs go the Shockers’ way too. What if Fred Van Vleet and Tekele Cotton hadn’t each shot 4 of 6 from 3-point range to score 22 and 20, respectively? What if WSU hadn’t scored 21 points off a respectable nine ISU turnovers?

In the end, WSU was just better. The Sycamores tipped their cap to them, even in their sadness in fighting hard and falling short.

“They’re a well-rounded team,” Odum said. “Someone like Baker doesn’t hit a 3, but Cotton and Van Vleet both have four. So they’re deep. They’ve got players. They’ve got some potential pros on their team.”

ISU trailed 39-29 at halftime, but the balance of the game was decided in the second half. Odum tried to draw a charge on Baker with 19:08 left. He was called for a block, but worse, the knuckle on his right index finger was injured in the collision.

Odum left the game and headed to the locker room for treatment. He told ISU’s coaches he broke his hand.

After 12 seconds of game time, he was back in the game.

“It’s the way it goes. You have injuries in sports. I might have let it affect me a little bit too much, but it is what it is,” Odum said.

WSU led 44-29, but on Odum’s return the Sycamores began to cut into the deficit. Six different Sycamores scored in a 14-3 run that made it 47-43 with 13:06 left. ISU’s defense in that stretch was as important as the offense. WSU shot 3 of 14 to start the half.

WSU reopened the gap to 10 when Van Vleet and Cotton each made 3-pointers, but ISU punched back, and it was 55-50 when perhaps the pivotal call of the game was made with 10:20 left.

Baker appeared to trip as he entered the lane on a drive. There was minimal contact with Odum, but Odum was whistled for his fourth foul on a controversial blocking call.

Lansing had to substitute Odum, and ISU’s fortunes went to the bench with him. A lethal combination of hastened shots by ISU’s offense combined with a 13-0 surge by WSU’s offense, and the Shockers led 68-50 with 5:38 left.

Odum refused to comment on his fourth foul. Lansing wasn’t pleased about it.

“It’s a big [momentum] change. I thought Jake played as good a defense as you could have played. It was a tough call. There were a couple of those, I felt, in that stretch,” Lansing said.

ISU still wasn’t done. Three-pointers on four straight possessions by Justin Gant, Dawon Cummings and Lucas Eitel cut WSU’s lead to 75-67 with 2:29 left. But that was ISU’s last stand. WSU finished the game on an 8-2 run.

ISU was playing catch-up almost from the start. WSU started the game on a 10-2 run. ISU responded to tie it, but had a five-minute-plus stretch without a field goal.

A dry period that long spells trouble against the Shockers, and so it was for the Sycamores. WSU’s 13-1 run gave it a 23-11 lead. The game threatened to turn into a rout just as WSU’s previous MVC Tournament games against Evansville and Missouri State did.

It didn’t quite come to that. ISU recovered and cut its deficit to eight, but could dent it no further. The Sycamores weren’t helped by their first-half free throw shooting (7 of 12), foul trouble and excellent WSU defense. ISU’s defense gave the Sycamores a puncher’s chance at halftime as WSU led 39-29.

“They just kept hitting tough shots. So you have to give them credit for that,” Gant said.

ISU lost in the MVC Tournament championship game for the first time since 1978 and for the first time at Arch Madness.

n Odum named to all-tournament team — Odum was the lone ISU player named to the all-tournament team. Cotton was named Most Outstanding Player. WSU’s Van Vleet and Cleanthony Early, along with Evansville’s D.J. Balentine, comprised the team.

n ISU postseason — ISU is confident it will be selected for the National Invitation Tournament next Sunday. The team is going forward with the idea that it is its No. 1 option, and ISU Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman indicated that the school has put in a bid to host a game.

Prettyman said he and Lansing would meet today about contingencies if the Sycamores aren’t chosen for the NIT. The College Basketball Invitational and CollegeInsider.com Tournament would be ISU’s other options.

n Gant’s eye — Gant spent Saturday night in a St. Louis hospital emergency room after his right eye was poked during Saturday’s victory against Southern Illinois.

SIU’s Bola Olaniyan inadvertently poked Gant. The ISU junior played though the injury, but it progressively got worse. There was obvious bleeding inside the eye and Gant went to the emergency room.

“I had some bleeding and a little pressure on the eye. I went to the hospital and got it checked out and ended up being all right,” Gant said. “It didn’t affect me today. I knew it was going to be a big day and a big game. I got plenty of rest.”

n Tournament attendance — Sunday’s championship-game attendance was 12,125, the sixth-highest in title game history. Overall tournament attendance was 50,989, the 10th best of all-time. The MVC Tournament has drawn better than 50,000 for 12 consecutive seasons.

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Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza 55 on the stop: Indiana State's Connor Underwood tackles North Dakota State's Sam Ojuri during the Sycamores' loss to the Bison on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

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