WICHITA, Kan. – Wichita State funneled into the locker room for some sage advice from coach Gregg Marshall, and wound up getting a little wisdom from Emmy Award-winner Kirstie Alley instead.
"She said to the guys, 'Don't read the reviews, the positive ones and the negative ones. Just play the game,'" Marshall said after a 78-67 victory over Southern Illinois that ran the No. 4 Shockers' record to 26-0. "So you're getting it from a Hollywood star."
The reviews of this one aren't going to be very positive.
The Shockers threw the ball away at an uncharacteristic rate. They shot poorly from the perimeter, struggled to defend Salukis star Anthony Beane and found themselves in a four-point hole with very little going right in the early minutes of the second half.
But behind 19 points from Ron Baker and 18 from Cleanthony Early, the Shockers (13-0 Missouri Valley Conference) still managed to put Southern Illinois away, becoming the first team since Memphis in 2008 to start 26-0. All that stands in the way of becoming the first team since Saint Joseph's in 2004 to have a perfect regular season are five more games.
"It's cool, you know?" Early said. "But we take it game by game, day by day. I don't think we're looking at an undefeated season because you have to beat the team that's in front of you."
Beane scored 25 points for the Salukis (10-16, 6-7), getting to the rim at will until late in the game, when the Shockers finally started to double- and triple-team him.
Desmar Jackson and Jalen Pendleton added 13 points as Southern Illinois had its first four-game winning streak in more than four years come to a crashing end.
Salukis coach Barry Hinson said the crowd, raucous throughout, was a big factor.
"Kudos to them, seriously," he said of another sellout at Koch Arena in Alley's hometown. "High-five to 10,505 — and Kirstie Alley, because I love her. I think she's great."
The Shockers trailed at halftime for the ninth time during their unbeaten run, though the 33-32 deficit could have been a whole lot worse the way they were shooting the ball.
Wichita State was just 2 of 14 from 3-point range in the first half, most of them missing just about everything. In fact, the only shots the Shockers seemed to make outside of 3 feet were a series of free throws that Early made to keep them within striking distance.
It didn't help that the Shockers were in foul trouble, too. Baker, Early and Fred VanVleet — their top three scorers — were on the bench with two fouls apiece late in the half.
Once they returned after the break, the Shockers started to pick up steam.
Early converted a three-point play with 15:47 to put them ahead 44-43, the seventh lead change in the game. Baker added a silky-smooth jumper, then knocked down his first 3 moments later as Wichita State took control and Koch Arena suddenly got rocking.
Beane refused to let the Salukis wilt under the pressure.
The sophomore guard kept slicing through Wichita State's man-to-man defense for baskets near the rim, more than once drawing contact along the way. When the Shockers finally clamped down on him, he deftly found the open teammate for wide-open looks.
Pendleton's three-point play pulled the Salukis to 69-64 with 2½ minutes left, but Baker answered with his third 3-pointer at the other end. The Shockers turned up the pressure and forced Sean O'Brien into a turnover, and that led to a run-out by Baker, who was fouled and calmly made both free throws.
Still with a chance to make it a game, Southern Illinois promptly turned it over again, and this time the Salukis allowed VanVleet to go for an uncontested layup that made it 76-64.
"There's a reason they're 26-0. They're damn good!" Hinson said. "But they made shots and that crowd just went nuts, and we came down and said, 'Hey, it's close to April 15. We'll just give you the ball and we'll get a tax deduction!'"
Wichita State merely had to coax the final seconds off the clock to wrap up the win.
"Just survive," Marshall said. "That was not our best effort, obviously. They get a lot of credit for that. They had a great game plan. They packed it in and we didn't make any shots from the arc. It was a good strategy. Finally we made some in the second half and pulled away slowly, but give them credit. They played well."