SALT LAKE CITY — It would understandable if a team became discouraged after missing 72 percent of the shots it took.
But the barrage of missed shots did not deter — or discourage — the Wichita Shockers.
“A basketball game is a long time — it’s 40 minutes,” said Wichita senior Malcolm Armstead after the Shockers upset Pitt with a 73-55 win in the NCAA tournament’s second round of West Regional games at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday. “You can’t get down about missing some shots because there are going to be opportunities throughout the game. You’ve just got to have confidence, and be ready to burn that next shot. It’s just a matter of staying focused and being able to do what it is you do.” And what the Shockers do is play defense and fight for rebounds.
That tough-minded approach earned them 21 points off Pitt turnovers and helped them earn twice as many steals. Half of the Shockers’ steals came from sophomore guard Tekele Cotton.
“He’s got a big heart,” Armstead, who finished with a game-high 22 points and five assists, said of Cotton. “He’s athletic, strong, stronger than what he may look. He’s like a free safety. He can pretty much guard any position one through four. His desire and his will to be able to defend is crazy.” And in his team’s victory against a higher-seeded, slightly favored team, it may have been the difference.
“I thought our defense was the story for tonight,” said Wichita head coach Gregg Marshall. “We jokingly talked about the first team to 55 would win the game, and the way our guys defended and rebounded against a team that defends and rebounds extraordinarily well over Jamie (Dixon’s) entire tenure, I thought was the story.”
Marshall pointed out that the Shockers finished with a 38.8 field goal percentage and were 2 for 20 from 3-point range. But they outrebounded the Panthers (37-32) and scored 21 of their points off of Pitt turnovers. Forward Carl Hall finished with 11 points and six rebounds, while Cleanthony Early broke out of his postseason slump to score 21 points and grab seven rebounds.
After recording seven consecutive double-doubles, Early failed to reach double digits in the MVC tournament and the result was a semifinal loss for the Shockers. Marshall told Early specifically that the team needed him to play well Thursday, and the junior college transfer from New York told him he would. Marshall smiled as he discussed the grit and confidence his team showed in battling through poor shooting and a physical opponent.
“I think that just speaks volumes about our guys,” he said. “We’re very pleased to be moving on to the third round.”
Meanwhile, Cotton was given the assignment of guarding Pitt leading scorer Tray Woodall. When Woodall played Wichita three years ago, he put 19 points on the scoreboard. Thursday, Cotton’s stifling defense held the Pitt senior to five points before he fouled out.
Woodall was emotional about his performance and the loss.
“It’s a bitter taste in my mouth to end my career with one of the worst games I’ve ever played in my history,” he said, covering his face as the tears fell. “I’m sorry I let my team down. It was just one of the worst games I’ve ever played.”
It wasn’t just Woodall that struggled. Only freshman Steven Adams reached double figures as he scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. There were stretches when the New Zealand native kept Pitt in the contest.
But eventually, it was the Shockers’ defense and 80 percent free-throw shooing (33-41) that won the game for the No. 9 seed. “I thought our kids were focused and ready to play against a great team,” said Marshall. “For us to win handily like this, I just don’t know what to say other than our guys played very well — very, very well — and basically took the fight to them.”
Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon acknowledged that the Shockers were more aggressive and confident than the Panthers, although he’s not sure why.
“I think they were far more aggressive than us early,” he said, “I don’t know why that was, but we seemed to be on the heels. I can’t explain it. One of the things we fought through when we didn’t make shots sometimes, was getting impatient offensively. And that’s something we’ve battled all year. I think every team battles it, but maybe that got to us.” Dixon said they knew Cotton would likely defend Woodall and they thought they were prepared for what that meant.
“We talked about him being their best defender and probably the guy that would be guarding Tray,” said Dixon. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can do things. Our balance has been our key. But really when you have not anybody shoot it well, and you go 1 for 17 from the 3, there are not a lot of things you can point to.”