WICHITA — It wasn’t pretty but the 24th-ranked Wichita State Shockers beat East Carolina on Wednesday afternoon at Charles Koch Arena 75-69 to open up American Athletic Conference play.
That wasn’t our ‘A’ performance, maybe a ‘C’ or ‘C-plus,’” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. “You can’t always have your best. I’m just glad we got it done and I’m glad we don’t have to go back to Greenville and that we’re 1-0.”
Wichita State improves to 12-1 on the season and 1-0 in the AAC.
It wasn’t without trouble from Jayden Gardner of East Carolina. The Sophomore was a one-man show, boasting for 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting and pulling down 10 rebounds.
Wichita State only trailed for 24 seconds. They led from the jump as the Shockers jumped out to a 9-0 run to start the game behind back-to-back threes from Trey Wade and Jamarius Burton.
“I thought we got a little awestruck to begin and then we started to figure it out,” East Carolina head coach Joe Dooley said. “We kind of dug around, dug around and hung in there.”
East Carolina made their move, methodically getting back into the game. Wichita State kept the Pirates at arm’s length for the first half.
Wichita State’s lead was 37-30 at the break but the real issues with Wichita State came down to their free throw shooting. They were only 16-of-29 from the free throw line, including 7-of-13 in the first half. A lead of single digits missed out on the double digits due to the ineffectiveness at the line.
“We struggled a little bit,” said Burton. “In practice, you can’t really simulate what it’s like in games. It just comes down to us getting more reps and getting more confidence at the line.”
“The offense would have looked a little better if we made a few more free throws,” Marshall said. “If we make our free throws like we normally do, we’re in the mid-80s.”
East Carolina hung around. They made their move and took the lead with 12:46 remaining. Wichita State took it to another gear, with Jamie Echenique’s lay up giving them the lead back for good. Erik Stevenson finally found his stroke. He hit a timely three-pointer and then followed it up with a steal, turning the momentum for good. In a matter of seconds, Wichita State led 50-45.
The Shockers grabbed their first double digit lead with back-to-back Etienne three-pointers gave Wichita State some separation and Burton made two free throws, giving them the 63-53 lead with 7:12 remaining.
Gardner would account for nine of the Pirate’s final 11 points, helping East Carolina stay in the contest. His explosion to the rim on a layup cut the Wichita State lead down to three with 1:54 remaining.
Once again, free throws hampered a chance at putting the game away comfortably. The Shockers would go 5-of-8 over the final 41 seconds of the game.
Mo Udeze had a key block with 33 seconds remaining in a four-point game. Tremont White-Robinson drove to the rim but it was Udeze who swiped at the ball, sealing the game.
Stevenson led the Shockers with 17 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals.
“That’s Shocker basketball and what Coach Marshall preaches,” Stevenson said. “It’s not always about scoring. His favorite stat is the plus-minus so it’s about what are you doing other than scoring to help winning.”
Wichita State will now host Ole Miss in the inaugural AAC-SEC Challenge. That tips off at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Charles Koch Arena.
“We were invited to do it and I said we would love to do it,” Marshall said. “We want to play the best teams that we can. So if we can have a home-and-home with another SEC school, we want to do it.”