NORMAL, Ill. – Illinois State's last home game of the season wasn't a typical Senior Day. The Redbirds don't have a senior on the roster so there wasn't much in the way of pregame festivities.
Even though Illinois State fell short of an upset against No. 19 Wichita State, falling 68-55 on Wednesday night, Redbirds coach Tim Jankovich was encouraged.
His team made the Shockers (25-4, 15-2) sweat until the final minutes before they clinched the Missouri Valley Conference championship with the win.
"There's no happiness in losing to anyone, anywhere, any time and there are no moral victories here. But, what I do feel good about, looking at our guys and how young we are. They're playing in a high-level game like this, they don't have a lot of these," Jankovich said. "They didn't handle it great and still had a chance. What I take from it is the long run and looking at these guys as they mature. I've been excited about them the whole time. We have a long way to go with these guys, they're young, we're going to have them for years to come."
Joe Ragland led the way for the Shockers, scoring 14 points. The 6-foot guard, one of four senior starters, had four 3-pointers for Wichita State, which made 10 of 23 shots from beyond the arc against the Redbirds (17-12, 8-9), who dropped to 0-3 against ranked teams this season and have lost 24 straight to Top 25 teams, the last win coming at No. 14 Iowa in 1987.
The Shockers have won seven straight and 15 out of its last 16 games. They won their seventh Missouri Valley title and first since 2006. The 15 conference wins are the most for the Shockers since they went 17-1 in winning the MVC in 1982-83.
"Just really proud of the effort tonight. Another quality road win against a good team to clinch the regular-season championship outright," Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. "Proud of our seniors, proud of the guys that have come behind those seniors and helped us to this point. The good news is I think this is possibly the beginning because the way we're playing right now, anything's possible."
Wichita State clinched a share of the title with its win against Missouri State on Feb. 15. But winning it outright has been a priority.
"That was definitely important, that was our goal," Ragland said. "You know, this season we felt we had the talent and we stressed hard work. Our guys worked hard all summer, we believed we could win, we just had to put the work in. Glad to see the hard work pay off."
Garrett Stutz scored 12 points to go along with 14 rebounds for the Shockers. Ben Smith and Demetric Williams added 11 points apiece for Wichita State. Williams did all his scoring in the first half.
"Arguably, you can make a case (that's) the best team we've played since we've been here in five years," Jankovich said. "It's hard to quantify that, but when you look at the pieces they have: A 7-foot center (Stutz) that potentially could get drafted, five senior guards and a very good, athletic front line, a senior and a junior. The age, the experience, the talent, well-coached, this is a great basketball team."
Bryant Allen led Illinois State with 17 points.
Wichita State jumped to a 15-4 lead, making its first six shots. Toure Murry, Ragland and Williams all hit 3-pointers in that opening stretch to help the Shockers build an early cushion.
Illinois State closed to 24-20 after a 3-pointer by Allen, but the Shockers got a tip-in bucket by Tekele Cotton and eight straight points by Williams to close the first half on a 10-2 run to enter the locker room with a 34-22 lead.
WSU held the Redbirds scoreless for the final 3:27 of the first half.
"I could feel like there's a chance we could win this game," Jankovich said. "We got a little momentum, we're cutting it down, we need one bucket and a stop and it could change the whole thing. It could turn and put the pressure back on them. A couple times I think we'd score, then boom, they'd score right back and we couldn't cut into it, or when we really needed it, they would hit it and then we'd miss and we couldn't come back."
Illinois State got as close as seven points early in the second half, but the Shockers went on a 10-1 run, highlighted by back-to-back dunks by Stutz and Kyles then back-to-back 3-pointers from Ragland and Smith to go ahead 57-40 with 9:41 remaining.
Illinois State wouldn't go away. The Redbirds cut the Wichita State lead to nine on a jumper by Allen to make it 62-53 with 5:08 left, but that's as close as they would get.
Wichita State shot 52 percent (14 for 27) from the floor in the first half and 47 percent (26 for 55) overall.
"We tried to start off pretty well. We started pretty well the last time we played them and they came back and made it a game," Ragland said of the Shockers' 65-62 win over Illinois State on Jan. 10. "When we were up that much, we tried not to let it get to our heads and think they're just going to roll over. Those guys are tough and they've got a lot of talent over there and we knew it was just going to be a 40-minute war and we had to execute, stop them and play great defense."
Defensively, the Shockers limited the Redbirds to 37 percent shooting and held Illinois State's Jackie Carmichael, who averages 13.8 points, to six points on 2 of 9 shooting.