(TNS) — No. 17 Wichita State snapped its two-game losing skid on Thursday at Koch Arena with a 81-62 victory over Central Florida to improve to 16-4 overall and 6-2 in the American Athletic Conference.
WSU senior Shaquille Morris won his 100th game as a Shocker and did so in style, scoring a game-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting off the bench.
Although the Shockers never fully hit their stride, it was a much-improved effort from the SMU and Houston losses and coach Gregg Marshall thought it was a step in the right direction.
"I thought the game was a good turning point for us, let’s hope," Marshall said.
"We didn’t have very many really good performances (against Houston). But tonight, you can go down the list and we had contributions from a number of guys. It was a team win against a good team that’s a little undermanned at this point."
Here are the takeaways from Thursday’s victory:
Better effort as Marshall shakes up the lineup
Marshall hinted at a major shake-up coming with the lineup early in the week and delivered on that promise, replacing Conner Frankamp, Zach Brown, and Shaquille Morris with Austin Reaves, Markis McDuffie, and Rauno Nurger in the starting lineup alongside Landry Shamet and Rashard Kelly.
Marshall said Frankamp (stomach) and Morris (migraine) were pulled due to missing Monday’s practice, while he thought "it was just time" for McDuffie to return to the lineup for the first time this season.
"If you can’t practice, then you’re not going to start," Marshall said. "And if they can’t practice at all, then they’re not going to play. I should have implemented that a long time ago. I’ve done it in the past, but with a veteran group you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s just happened too much over time, though."
The shake-up didn’t pay immediate dividends, as WSU led 4-2 after four minutes. But Marshall and the players thought the effort was better throughout Thursday’s game.
"It was a great team win, across the board we had a lot of good performances we were looking for," senior Rashard Kelly said. "When you lose two in a row, you’ve just got to look up. We were in a hole and we couldn’t make the hole any bigger, so we just had to look up. A lot of guys played well tonight."
Although there wasn’t one memorable hustle play, players said they felt the energy level on the floor was much improved.
WSU never completely buried UCF, but it eventually put the game away with its consistency.
"We just had to get back to who we are," Reaves said. "The last week of practice was hard. We competed and I felt like we went out tonight and competed really hard."
That was important to see for Marshall following a concerning loss to Houston over the weekend.
"We were intimidated at Houston," Marshall said. "Our guys didn’t respond after getting punched in the mouth and that’s disappointing. We talked about it, the urgency of now. What are you waiting on? We’ve got 11 regular-season games, so it’s about time to figure that out."
Shaquille Morris becomes ‘a problem’
Bringing senior Morris off the bench for the first time in seven games proved beneficial, as he scored his most points (19) since Dec. 5.
Morris scored immediately upon entering the game, throwing down an alley-oop lob from Shamet and then adding back-to-back finishes inside for six points in less than two minutes.
"When he gets going like that, he’s a problem," Reaves said. "We looked for him early in the game and when he’s knocking down those shots and rebounding, he’s hard to guard."
Perhaps Morris’ most impressive shot came to cap off a 15-4 rally, as he caught a pass from Conner Frankamp, took a step back beyond the three-point line and splashed through one of his rainbow swishes. Morris has hit a career-high 12 three-pointers this season and is shooting 42.9 percent on treys.
WSU improved to 8-0 when Morris scores at least 18 points.
"We came out and took care of what we needed to do on the court," Morris said. "We just tried to get back to playing angry and doing what we are known for."
But Morris’ night ended in scary fashion, as he rolled his ankle landing on a UCF defender’s foot after a shot attempt. Morris exited the game with 5:58 remaining in the second half and did not return.
Morris showed up for the post-game press conference with ice taped to the ankle, but said it was "fine" to reporters. His status for Sunday’s game against Tulsa was unclear.
"We don’t know what’s going to happen on Sunday," Marshall said.
Marshall exploits depth in victory
The Knights entered the game playing at the 39th-slowest pace in college basketball, according to Ken Pomeroy. Since December, UCF games have featured an average of 64 possessions – well below WSU’s average of 71.
On Thursday, the Shockers effectively sped up UCF – the game had 69 possessions – into its highest-tempo game since an 83-45 loss to West Virginia on Nov. 24. It wasn’t a coincidence that WSU’s 81 points was the second-most UCF’s defense has allowed.
"They wanted to keep up that way and their depth allowed them to do that," UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. "They’re just a good team with a lot of experience and a lot of depth. It’s a good combination. Coach Marshall does a great job with his team."
Marshall seemed to substitute even more liberally than usual, looking for a combination that clicked. As a result, 10 players saw between 13 and 28 minutes.
"If guys slow down to 98 percent and 99 percent, then they’ve got to come out," Marshall said. "Because the guy sitting on the bench behind them is equally as good. It’s hard for me to figure out sometimes who to put in the game. They need to be playing hard and they need to be playing smart and be giving great effort."
The depth eventually wore down UCF, as Marshall said WSU "just made more plays" in the end to win the game. Players say the constant substituting is an incentive.
"Just give it everything you’ve got," Reaves said. "If there’s a loose ball, dive on it. If you’re not checking out, you’re probably going to come out of the game. When you’re in there, you’ve got to give 110 percent every possession. If you do that, then nine times out of 10 good things are going to come out."
On Thursday, UCF shot 36.1 percent (the eighth time it has shot below 40 percent this season) with 10 turnovers. The Knights have scored under 50 points three times this season.
"I saw them play a game earlier this year where it was in the 40s," WSU’s Rashard Kelly said. "I think the lineups we kept throwing at them and just how active we were, they were gassed at the end of the game. That was able to help wear them down."
Why the green ties?
Fans may have noticed that Gregg Marshall and his coaching staff were all in green ties for the game.
Why green? That’s the color for the group Coaching For Literacy, which Marshall and his staff were supporting by helping raise nearly $2,000 from Thursday’s game that will be donated to help fund literacy programs for youth.
"The mission of Coaching For Literacy is to use the power of sports to raise awareness about the problem of literacy and generate financial support for literacy programs nationwide," Marshall read from a statement after the game.
Marshall said it was a cause he could get behind.
"Everybody deserves the opportunity to read," he said. "Let’s do something about it. That is not my favorite color, but I will wear it for that cause."