WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Wichita State will carry its pursuit of perfection into the Missouri Valley tournament.
Cleanthony Early scored 19 points, Ron Baker added 13 and the second-ranked Shockers rolled to a 68-45 victory over Missouri State on Saturday, easily putting away a team that had given them fits this season.
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.
Missouri State (19-11, 9-9) had them in trouble when they met Jan. 11 in Springfield, Mo., but the Bears blew a 19-point second-half lead and ultimately lost 72-69 in overtime.
They never came close to making it a game Saturday, trailing by double-digits in the opening minutes.
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.
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.
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 Fred 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.
In fact, the only interesting moment of the second half came when Lufile was fouled with about 10 minutes to go. After missing his first seven free throw attempts, the big senior forward — with the crowd rising to its feet — finally got one to rattle home.
Of course, it hardly mattered that Lufile’s foul shooting wasn’t perfect.
Everything else about Wichita State is these days.