NEW YORK – Perhaps more people should have cried foul when Wichita State was left out of the NCAA tournament a few weeks ago.
Garrett Stutz came off the bench to score a career-high 24 points, and one of the top programs in the Missouri Valley Conference romped past Washington State 75-44 on Tuesday night in another impressive performance that put the Shockers in the NIT championship game.
Stutz also had 11 rebounds for Wichita State (28-8), which surpassed the 1954 team for the most wins in school history, even though just a few people back home even raised an eyebrow when it was left out on Selection Sunday.
The Valley often gets more than one team into the NCAA tournament, but a down year for the conference meant only Indiana State — the team that beat Wichita State in the league tournament — got in as an automatic qualifier. Wichita State was relegated to the NIT, where it has proven that it certainly belongs among the top 68 teams in the country.
The Shockers romped over Nebraska in the opening round, then went on the road to Virginia Tech — another team that hoped to get into the NCAA tournament — and won again. They returned home to beat College of Charleston to earn a trip to Madison Square Garden.
The Shockers will play Alabama or Colorado for the title Thursday night.
Reggie Moore and DeAngelo Casto scored nine points each to lead Washington State (22-13), which went 0 for 10 from beyond the 3-point line. Leading scorer Klay Thompson matched a season low with six points, exactly 16 below his season average.
Thompson was 1 for 10 from the field and 0 for 5 from beyond the arc.
Washington State coach Ken Bone must have known his team was in trouble 10 minutes into the game, when the Cougars had made just two field goals and already trailed 14-4. Thompson headed to the bench after picking up his third foul, and the Shockers began to extend their lead.
Toure Murry scored back-to-back baskets with about 8 minutes left in the half, and Gabe Blair scored a couple more baskets a few minutes later for Wichita State.
Otherwise, the Shockers simply rode Stutz's broad shoulders.
The junior center was 7-of-9 shooting in the first half for 18 points, just four shy of his season high, set against Tulsa in December. He also had five rebounds, half of the total of the entire Washington State team, and even handed out a couple assists.
Late in the half, Stutz scored seven straight points for the Shockers, then hit Graham Hatch with a nice kick-out pass for a 3-pointer, before scoring again just before the halftime buzzer to give Wichita State a 36-19 lead.
The stingy defensive effort wasn't entirely new for the Shockers, who held Alabama A&M to 14 points in a half earlier this season, and limited Nebraska to 20 first-half points in a 76-49 victory in the opening round of the NIT.
Turns out it wasn't new for the Cougars, either.
Their wildly inconsistent offense scored only 16 points in the second half of an overtime loss to UCLA, and was held to a season-low 43 points total by Oregon in February.
If not for a late basket, they wouldn't have even scored that against Wichita State.