You would not have known it for the first 16 minutes of the second half, but Wichita State’s defense is the most efficient in Division I. Loyola torched the Shockers for 1.27 points per possession during that time, turning a 30-22 halftime deficit into a 55-51 lead with four minutes remaining.
Then Loyola went scoreless for the next 3:40 as Wichita State eked out a 66-58 victory behind a dominant defensive effort in the paint by sophomore forward Shaquiile Morris. The guards funneled Loyola’s ball handlers into the lane, forcing them to try finishing over the 6-foot-7 Morris.
While Morris picked up two quick fouls in the first half and then a third on his second defensive possession in the second half. As a result, the sophomore big had played only 11 minutes before coach Gregg Marshall subbed him in with 4:55
Two possessions after returning to the court, Morris rejected a layup by Loyola guard Milton Doyle. Then he blocked a jumper by guard Devon Turk.
Morris finished the afternoon with six blocks.
“I just have to give credit to my teammates for helping me out, so I had to help them out,” Shaquille Morris said. “I was just playing our defensive principles and just timing. That’s all it was on the blocks.”
Senior guard Ron Baker also played tremendous defense on Loyola’s perimeter players in crunch time. Baker scored a game-high 25 points and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:54 remaining, but he credited the adjusted game plan and Morris’ execution for Loyola’s drought.
“We started helping less and sending them into the lane, into Shaq, and I think that’s where we made our progression, our run, and that’s how we got stops,” Baker said. “Our defensive philosophy is trying to run shooters off the line. They were making some shots. Sending them into the lane, trying to score over Shaq is a really hard shot.”
Loyola, after appearing to have solved Wichita State’s elite defense, wilted. The Ramblers had four shots blocked and one shot clock violation in the final four minutes.
Loyola coach Porter Moser realized change in the defense and said Loyola should have kicked out to shooters more often instead of attacking Morris head-on.
“All of a sudden, they picked up their pressure, and they denied 28 feet from the basket,” Moser said. “We drove it to the basket a couple times, and that’s when you’ve got to draw a crowd and kick it a couple times.”
Morris is far from solely responsible for the defensive lockdown. Morris needed his four teammates to execute and force players into the teeth of the defense, but if Morris had fouled or backed away from driving Loyola players, the game plan would have fallen apart.
“What Shaq was saying, trusting the defense, he’s relying on someone from the weak side, like a guard, to check down his man so that they can’t dump it off for an easy two,” Baker said. “Shaq’s doing a good job of just going straight up, being a rim tender, making sure no one can score over him or around him.”
Wichita State advances to Saturday’s semifinals with a matchup against No. 4 seed Northern Iowa. The Panthers have two of the conference’s better guards in Wes Washpun and Jeremy Morgan, but their front court is significantly weaker.
The Shockers will need Morris to hold his ground in the paint against a slashing guard like Washpun, and going against a thin front court could give him some opportunities to make larger contributions on the offensive end. Morris had two points and two turnovers Friday while not attempting a field goal.
“Shaq was huge down the stretch just patrolling the lane,” Marshall said. “He looked like the big guy that we hope he can continue to become.”