Wichita State suffers first conference loss

By Taylor Eldridge
The Wichita Eagle/TNS

Houston remains the road trip in the American Athletic Conference that continues to defy the Wichita State men’s basketball team.

The Shockers lost, 70-63, to the No. 11-ranked Cougars at the Fertitta Center on Wednesday evening, their sixth straight loss to Houston. WSU has now lost all four games in Houston since joining the AAC by an average of 15.8 points.

The loss snapped a five-game winning streak of WSU (6-3, 2-1 AAC) and was the first conference loss, bringing the Shockers level with Houston (8-1, 4-1 AAC), Tulsa, SMU and Memphis as one-loss teams in conference play.

Up against a top-10 defense in the country, it was a rough shooting game for WSU, which finished 33.9 percent (20 of 59) from the field, 30.8 percent (8 of 26) on 3-pointers and 68.2 (15 of 22) on free throws. The Shockers were outscored by 13 points in the second half, as Houston made 46.2 percent of its field goals and 80.0 percnt of its free throws (16 of 20) in the second half.

WSU was led by another scoring explosion from sophomore Tyson Etienne, who finished with a game-high 25 points on 7 of 20 shooting to go along with eight rebounds. WSU junior Dexter Dennis also scored 18 points with five rebounds, while the rest of the Shockers combined for just 20 points on 8-of-30 shooting.

Regardless, Wednesday’s effort was a markedly better performance from the Shockers than their performance a year ago in the Fertitta Center when they lost by 33 points for their worst performance in nearly two decades.

WSU led 38-33 at halftime and actually extended its lead to 10 points early in the second half, but that’s when the game fell apart for the Shockers. The next seven minutes couldn’t have gone worse for the Shockers.

Houston caught fire and scored 16 unanswered points, thanks to an extended run of dreadful offense from the Shockers. Once it took a 10-point lead, WSU’s next 12 possessions resulted in 0-for-9 shooting and four turnovers. When Etienne scored on a wild layup with 11:23 remaining to end the seven-minute scoreless streak, Houston had turned a 10-point deficit into a 6-point lead.

Cold shooting and careless turnovers doomed WSU, as Houston pushed its lead by as many as 14 points.

The Shockers did make a late rally spurred by Dennis, who drilled a 3 and finished an impressive slam dunk in traffic to cap a 7-1 run to trim Houston’s lead to 62-55 with 3:36 remaining. WSU had multiple chances at cutting further into the lead, but committed another turnover, gave up three offensive rebounds, then missed two straight shots. Houston made its free throws down the stretch to extend the lead to double-digits.

The game was reminiscent of WSU’s trip to the Fertitta Center two years ago when the Shockers opened up 38-33 halftime lead, only to lose 79-70 after allowing Houston to open the season half on a 15-2 run.

The difference from a year ago in WSU’s performance could be seen as early as the first minute of the game when Etienne darted his way around two screens and drilled a 3-pointer, then Trey Wade was there for a put-back slam to put the Shockers up 5-0 early.

The 11-0 run that Houston responded with to go up 14-7 with 13:37 remaining was the kind that might have broken the Shockers early in the game a year ago. Not this team.

WSU battled its way back in the game thanks to a 14-0 advantage in points off turnovers in the first half. Houston’s defense entered as the 15th-best team in the country in forcing turnovers, but WSU committed just three in 31 possessions against the Cougars and capitalized on all six of Houston’s turnovers - most notably when Dennis swooped in to steal a cross-court pass and finished at the other end with a ferocious tomahawk slam.

The Shockers took a 31-25 lead into halftime following a pair of tip-ins from junior Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler. While it seemed as if Houston had once again dominated the glass in the first half, WSU finished the first 20 minutes with just one fewer offensive rebound (8) and two fewer second-chance points (8) against one of the best rebounding teams in the country.

DeJon Jarreau (3) of the Houston Cougars drives to the net during the first half of a game against the Wichita State Shockers at Fertitta Center on Jan. 6, 2021 in Houston, Texas.