All three games for Wichita State in the Charleston Classic came down to the wire, and the Shockers suffered their second loss of the week in a 90-86 defeat to Alabama in the fifth-place game of the tournament on Sunday at TD Arena.
The Shockers fell behind by 12 at halftime, rallied in the second half to tie the score with seven minutes, only to come up short of winning plays down the stretch.
Here are five takeaways for WSU:
1. Gregg Marshall’s halftime speech fires up WSU
Frustrations were high when WSU went into halftime trailing by 12 points. The Shockers made a costly turnover in the final seconds that led to an Alabama layup that punctuated a 10-2 run by the Crimson Tide to end the half.
As one could imagine, Gregg Marshall had a fiery speech prepared for his team in the locker room.
“Coach kind of got us fired up and we knew we had to start trying to play angry, not so relaxed,” WSU freshman Dexter Dennis said.
It only took five minutes for WSU to whittle Alabama’s lead to six, 56-50, when Markis McDuffie canned a corner three. After 13 minutes, WSU had clawed all the way back to tie the score 69-69, courtesy of a 17-6 extended run featuring 11 points from Dennis.
“We had no choice,” McDuffie said. “Those guys are a tough SEC team and we didn’t come out ready to go. Down 12, we had no choice but to give it our all.”
But after tying the score with seven minutes remaining, WSU’s offense proceeded to miss nine of its next 12 shots to hurt its comeback chances. WSU never had the ball with a chance to take the lead or tie the game in the final five minutes.
“We’ve got to work on defending while we’re not scoring,” Marshall said. “It seems like we can do one or the other right now. We’ve got to do both against good teams if we want to have an opportunity to win. I still thought we had an opportunity to win and we had some great looks, but then we maybe had a quick 5-second count and then a phantom foul where no one else in the gym saw the foul. We can’t overcome that. We’re not to that point. We’ve got to learn to guard without fouling, we’ve got to make open jumpers and compete like the dickens like we did in the second half.”
2. ‘I’m a shooter, that’s just what I do’
McDuffie wrapped up a tremendous showing in Charleston, where he concluded with a game-high 26 points on 13 shots. For the week, the senior averaged 22.7 points and made 50 percent of his shots in three games.
“He’s playing under control and not making a whole lot of mistakes,” Marshall said. “He’s really been efficient, not turning the ball over and shooting a good percentage. Thank God he’s on our team this year.”
The biggest jump in McDuffie’s game has been his three-point shooting. In his first three years at WSU, McDuffie made 33.8 percent of 222 career three-pointers.
In the first five games of this season, McDuffie has made 16 of 31 threes (51.6 percent).
“I’m a shooter, that’s just what I do,” McDuffie said. “I’m a shooter who can play defense. I’m versatile. I’m glad I get a chance to show that and play a lot of minutes and lead my team and put them in the best position possible to win. I just got to go out there and do my thing. I’m obviously fully healthy, so I’m showing people what I can do.”
McDuffie has been aggressive attacking the basket at times this season, but sometimes he does so out of control. On Sunday, McDuffie was in control and picked his spots better. The result was shooting a season-high nine free throws.
“It started to pay off,” McDuffie said of his aggressiveness. “I thought I drove the ball a lot, a lot more than I usually do. That’s just coach running the right plays for me and putting me in that position to succeed.”
3. The road map to winning for this WSU team
Alabama entered the game shooting a tick under 31 percent on three-pointers for the season and 65 percent from the free throw line.
On Sunday, the Crimson Tide made 9 of 19 three-pointers (47.4 percent) and 31 of 33 free throws (93.9 percent).
“Hopefully the next game it will all even out and we won’t get someone’s best shooting performance of the year,” Marshall said. “Maybe it’s our defense. I’ll have to look at it. We certainly were giving them too many looks and fouling them quite a bit. It’s got to be us getting better and figuring out what we can do to get more stops.”
That led Marshall to laying down the road map for how this WSU team will have to play going forward to win games.
“We discovered you have to compete at a very high level,” Marshall said. “Against Alabama and a lot of teams on our schedule, we’re not going to beat them because we’re longer, more athletic, more talented, more skilled, more experienced. We’re not going to beat them that way. We’re going to beat them, if we beat them, because we played harder, we played smarter and we cared more about winning.
“We didn’t do that the first half. The second half you saw a little fire, you saw a little energy, you saw a little passion, you saw a little toughness.”
4. The emergence of Dexter Dennis
The first four games for freshman Dexter Dennis can best be remembered in 30-second chunks. He would lock up the other team’s best player on defense or harness his athleticism for an athletic layup, only to let foul trouble or a missed jumper derail his game.
On Sunday, Dennis finally put together sustained excellence. The freshman scored 15 of his career-high 19 points in the second half, including 11 during a 17-6 run when WSU rallied to tie Alabama 69-69 with seven minutes remaining on a Dennis corner three.
“I was just listening to coach really,” Dennis said. “He said something to me in the locker room at halftime that kind of got me going. I just used what he said as motivation.”
Dennis’ potential is evident, but Marshall decided to take him out of the starting lineup after he scored two points in 16 minutes against Appalachian State. A highlight Sunday for Marshall was seeing Dennis put it together for the first time this season.
Dennis finished 7 for 9 shooting, made 4 of 5 free throws and came up with five rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.
“When we talk about young players, some of them get it right when they walk in the door,” Marshall said. “Others get it in a week or two, maybe a month. Some it takes a whole season and a half maybe. Some never get it. That’s where we are. For Dexter, it took three and a half games. But I hope we have it now. I hope he’s ready to go and give us quality minutes.”
Dennis said he didn’t personally believe it was a true breakthrough performance because the majority of his production came in the second half. It took Marshall’s speech at halftime to get him going. Dennis admitted he shouldn’t need that going forward and that’s the goal now.
But for his teammates, Dennis’ play was a lift when the Shockers needed it.
“He wasn’t scared out there,” McDuffie said. “He was ready to play. This is the kind of competition you want to play against. He went out there and did his thing.”
5. ‘We need some practice now’
No one on WSU was pleased coming away 1-2 from the Charleston Classic, but three straight games of important late-game situations is sure to help a youthful team.
Marshall wasn’t much interested in feeling good about the second half of WSU’s loss to Alabama. In the end, it was still a loss because of a poor first half. That’s something his team can correct.
“We’re trying to coach these kids the right way to be winners,” Marshall said. “We’re not into moral victories.”
“We have to start winning basketball games and listening to coach and buy in,” Dennis said. “We need to play angry for a full 40-minute game.”
After playing three games in four days, Marshall is looking forward to returning to Wichita where the Shockers will have an entire week off before playing again at Koch Arena on Sunday against Rice.
“We need some practice now,” Marshall said. “We need to go and practice and get better defensively and these guys need to understand they need to get in the gym and make some shots and make some free throws on their own. They’ve got to understand these games come down to one or two possessions.”
That message should be received after WSU experienced that in close losses to Davidson and Alabama.
“It’s crazy taking three L’s to start the season, but it’s also crazy how much better we’re getting at the same time,” McDuffie said. “We’ve still got to build. We’ve got to knock down some shots and get in the gym and play defense and lock in.”