EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Evansville coach Marty Simmons had a tough time sitting through Sunday’s game.
After enduring the litany of bad passes and bad decisions, he walked into the media room and made no apologies for what had happened. The Purple Aces simply made too many mistakes.
No. 4 Wichita State forced 18 turnovers, had a season-high 14 steals and, after going toe-to-toe with Evansville for 34 minutes, finally pulled away late for an 84-68 victory that kept the Shockers one of only two unbeaten teams in major college basketball.
“I’ve said it before,” Simmons said. “If you’re going to beat teams like Wichita State, you can’t make mistakes.”
Some were of Evansville’s own doing — like the inbound pass that landed out of bounds next to Simmons with 5:14 to go and a chance to cut the deficit to three. Others were the result of Wichita State’s uncanny anticipation.
Either way, it was the same result.
The Aces (11-16, 4-10 Missouri Valley Conference) seemed to do everything else right — shooting 51.1 percent from the field, 45.5 percent on 3-pointers, making 15 of 16 free throws and giving up only six offensive rebounds. D.J. Balentine finished with 19 points and four assists and Egidiju Mockevicius added 19 points and 10 rebounds.
But the turnover discrepancy was just too much to overcome as the Aces lost for the fourth time in five games.
“We didn’t turn it over in the press, we did it in the half court and you have to take care of the basketball,” Simmons said. “We’ve really got to learn, we’ve got to learn from that, and that’s one of our biggest deficiencies.”
Few expected the Shockers (27-0, 14-0) to be in this spot — even after reaching the Final Four last April.
They are one of only 21 teams in NCAA history to win their first 27 games, extended their school-record winning streak and are 14-0 in conference play for the first time in school history.
And after Arizona’s latest loss, Wichita State could be poised to move up another notch in the poll, getting even closer to Division I’s only other perfect team — No. 1 Syracuse. A win Wednesday at Loyola also would assure the Shockers at least a share of the regular-season conference title and the No. 1 seed in the Valley tournament — with three league games still on the docket.
How have they done it?
With a balanced offense and a staunch defense that Evansville knows is the best in the Valley.
Wichita State trumped the Purple Aces by outscoring them 23-2 off turnovers and 10-4 on fastbreaks. Coach Gregg Marshall didn’t even need a stat sheet to tell him what had happened. He estimated that the Shockers topped the 40-deflection mark.
The other numbers were just as glaring.
Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker each finished with a career-best five steals, and, not surprisingly wound up as the top scorers. Baker had a career-high 26 points, while VanVleet added 18 and eight assists and flirted with the possibility of a triple-double throughout the second half.
But that’s not what motivated Wichita, which lost twice to Evansville last season and fell behind by double-digits early in the first meeting two weeks ago.
They wanted to put away the Aces, and before the game, Marshall let Cleanthony Early, the team’s top scorer, know exactly what he needed to do in front of a Pacers scout who had been asking about his defense.
Early responded by scoring 13 points, seven rebounds and playing his best defensive game of the year, too.
“I loved his mental approach tonight and that’s not always the case,” Marshall said. “But tonight I thought he was very disciplined and when he does that, man, he’s really good.”
The Purple Aces only trailed 38-32 at the half and still found a way to fight back after falling into a 55-41 deficit early in the second half.
Mockevicius scored the first eight points in a 10-2 spurt that cut the deficit to 57-51 with 11:19 to go.
Early answered with five straight points and Evansville rallied again, getting as close as 65-60 with 6:10 left before throwing the ball away on an inbound pass that would have cut the deficit to three.
Instead, the Shockers got the ball back and forced two more turnovers during the decisive 13-4 run that finally sealed the victory.
“We wanted to extend them, get their timing disrupted. I don’t think we expected that many steals,” VanVleet said. “There were only a few times where we had breakdowns where we weren’t really where we were supposed to be.”