SALT LAKE CITY - Wichita State matched Pittsburgh’s power and overmatched it with quickness, an asset nobody outside the coaching staff saw coming.
The ninth-seeded Shockers handled Pittsburgh, 73-55, routing the Big East’s fourth-place team with surprising ease in the second round of the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional at EnergySolutions Arena. That win, a mild upset by seeding, will get the Shockers some attention for a lockdown defensive performance.
One more will bring all the basketball-following nation around to WSU. It plays top-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday with the winner advancing to the regional semifinals, better known as the Sweet 16.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall told the Shockers they made him proud. He told them their toughness won the day. Then he challenged them to extend their stay in the tournament with a trip to Los Angeles.
“Are you satisfied?” he said. “Are we done? Are we going to celebrate now like this is the end? Or are you going to continue to push through, and let’s try to head to where ever the next round is.”
The Shockers (27-8) played like a team that won’t be satisfied easily. They bullied the eighth-seeded Panthers and led by 11 or more points the final 6:49. WSU’s effort - and his team’s lack of effort - mystified Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.
“They were far more aggressive than us,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”
An attempt: The Shockers smacked the disinterested Panthers early in the game and refused to let them regroup. By the time the Panthers discovered their urgency, WSU grabbed control and closed out with a parade of dunks and free throws. Pitt missed 16 of 17 three-pointers and shot 35.2 percent for the game.
Guard Malcolm Armstead led WSU with 22 points, 11 in the final seven minutes. Forward Cleanthony Early shook off a disappointing conference tournament to add 21. The Shockers made 11 of 21 shots in the second half, enough to survive shooting 2 of 20 from three-point range.
“Going into the game, Coach made the statement ‘Knock ‘em in the face first,’” Early said. “That’s what we tried to do.”
WSU out-rebounded the Big East’s top rebounding team 37-32. It grabbed 11 offensive rebounds to produce 14 second-chance points and help outscore Pitt 33-16 at the foul line.
If the power game kept it even, speed allowed WSU to run away. It scored 21 points off 15 turnovers against a normally careful team.
“One of our strengths is low turnovers, and for people who haven’t seen us play, this wasn’t our team,” Dixon said. “We had five or six turnovers early that were not typical of how we play and put us in a hole.”
WSU coaches watched video of Pitt and came away impressed with its size. They also believed the Shockers could bother the Panthers with their quickness. Guard Tekele Cotton jumped passing lanes and harassed dribblers to record five steals. He rounded out that performance by blanketing guard Tray Woodall, who scored two points on 1-of-12 shooting before fouling out 10 points under his team-leading average.
Cotton provided the first of two killer bursts with steals on consecutive possessions midway through the second half. He stole a pass from Trey Zeigler, caught unaware while trying to start a play near the three-point line, and dunked for a 45-35 lead, provoking a leg kick in celebration from Marshall. Another steal led to free throws for Early and a 12-point edge with 10:13 remaining.
“Those are huge baskets,” Marshall said. “In a game like that, low points, if you can steal baskets.. You don’t want to give those freebies.”
Assistant coach Chris Jans had told Marshall that WSU’s quickness could disrupt the Panthers. Again and again, it did that by taking advantage of sloppy passes and weak handles. Pitt surrendered double-digit steals for the third time this season.
“Pressure,” Armstead said. “Tekele did real good setting the tempo. We just built off that and got some easy baskets.”
Armstead finished off the Panthers late. He banked in a shot for a 50-39 lead. After two missed foul shots by Pitt, he slithered into the lane for a lefty layup off the glass, drawing a foul. His three-point play put WSU up 53-49 with 5:43 remaining.
When the Panthers pressed, he sliced through it and found Early for a dunk and a 55-40 lead. The Panthers never got closer than 13 points.
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