WICHITA, Kan. – Missouri State coach Paul Lusk knew his Bears would have to get out to another big early lead if they were going to complete the job against No. 2 Wichita State on Saturday.
Instead, they never gave the Shockers much of a fight.
Cleanthony Early scored 19 points, Ron Baker added 13 and the Shockers rolled to a 68-45 victory Saturday, easily putting away a team that had taken them to overtime in January.
Relying on the same stubborn defense that carried it on last year's improbable March run, Wichita State (31-0, 18-0) became the first team since Saint Joseph's in 2004 to enter its league tournament unbeaten. The Shockers will have a first-round bye in St. Louis next week.
"We had no answers," Lusk said. "They defend you, they take care of the basketball and they're able to come down and pound it inside every time. We struggled to score on the block, we struggled to score everywhere, but that had to do with their personnel, the way they're able to defend."
The Bears (19-11, 9-9) fared much better when the teams met in Springfield, Mo., a couple of months ago. But even then, they were unable to hold a 19-point second-half lead in what turned out to be the closest Wichita State came to losing in the regular season.
"There was a moment before the season, looking at the schedule, saying, 'Man, I don't think we'll lose any of these games," said the Shockers' Fred VanVleet. "But we still have more games to play. And we won't celebrate how we should until we play our last, final game."
The Shockers are off to the best start since UNLV began 34-0 and lost in the 1991 national title game. They're also off to the best start by a Missouri Valley team since Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, won its first 33 games and fell to Michigan State in the 1979 title game.
The Shockers' last loss came in the Final Four, too — to eventual champ Louisville last year.
"It seems like the season started about three weeks ago as opposed to months ago," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "It's been incredible. They've met every challenge."
Putting this one away early gave a sellout crowd that had braved the threat of freezing rain ample opportunity to celebrate. Waving signs that applauded their unblemished record, fans packed inside Koch Arena serenaded a senior class led by Early that managed to elevate the program from a solid mid-major into a national power in the midst of a memorable season.
Along with fellow seniors Chadrack Lufile, Kadeem Coleby and Nick Wiggins, Early gave coach Gregg Marshall a bear hug when he checked out for the final time in the closing minutes.
"I'm just very, very proud of these guys," Marshall said.
Jarmar Gulley scored 15 points to lead Missouri State, which was dominated on the boards, in transition and just about everywhere else in losing its 10th straight against ranked teams.
Unlike the first meeting, when it was Wichita State that stumbled early, Missouri State missed 18 of its first 22 shots, suffocated under token pressure and never got into a rhythm.
When the Bears weren't blowing layups, they were turning the ball over, leading to some easy baskets at the other end. Wichita State shot 57 percent from the field in the first half, a big reason why it had built a 20-point lead just before the break.
The trio of Early, Baker and VanVleet picked up where it left off out of the locker room, Early scoring quickly and Baker hitting a long 3-pointer to keep Missouri State at bay.
"We've had a solid regular season, considering some of the things we've been through," Lusk said. "Now it's on to the postseason tournament and we're going to have to be ready to go."