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Evansville blows lead in 81-67 loss to No. 4 WSU

WICHITA, Kan. – Evansville coach Marty Simmons watched his young team race out to a big early lead on No. 4 Wichita State. Then he saw the Shockers slap on the press and come roaring right back.

It’s something they’ve done to plenty of teams this season.

D.J. Balentine had 26 points in another strong performance, but the Purple Aces were unable to hold onto an early 15-point lead and lost 81-67 at raucous Koch Arena on Saturday.

“It’s about the process. It’s about the possession. You start thinking like that,” Simmons said, when asked about getting comfortable with the big lead, “bad things are going to happen.”

They certainly happened quickly.

Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker scored 14 points apiece for undefeated Wichita State.

The Shockers’ comeback began when Baker scored with 8:12 remaining in the first half, starting a 27-4 run spanning halftime and turning a 15-point deficit into a 41-33 lead.

The charge was fueled by a three-quarter-court pressure that forced Evansville into several turnovers, the only time that a team starting two freshmen and three sophomores looked shaky.

“When they’re making their run, it’s like pouring gasoline on the fire,” Simmons said with a shake of his head. “That’s something we have to learn from.”

It didn’t help that the Purple Aces were mired in foul trouble.

Duane Gibson and fellow guard Adam Wing each had three fouls by halftime, and four others had two fouls apiece. That included Balentine, who sat on the bench for the final couple of minutes so that he wouldn’t be tempted into picking up his own third foul.

The Purple Aces hung around until the midway point of the second half, when Evan Wessel’s basket began a run of seven straight points that gave the Shockers a 70-52 lead.

Wichita State never allowed the Purple Aces (10-13, 3-7) to get close the final 8 minutes, avenging two frustrating losses to them a year ago.

“The way they started, I said, `Oh boy, here we go again,”’ Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “But we finally got stops. They missed a couple and we got out in transition.”

The Shockers (23-0, 10-0) rallied from a 19-point deficit to defeat Missouri State earlier this season, and have often found themselves suffering through long stretches of poor play only to come out unscathed by the final buzzer.

So is there a deficit too big to overcome?

“Let’s just hope we don’t find out,” Marshall said. “I’m sure there is, at this point not so far, but let’s just hope we don’t find out anytime soon.”

Balentine, who was coming off a 43-point performance against Northern Iowa, finished 11 of 21 from the field. But he didn’t get a whole lot of help from his teammates, who struggled against the length and athleticism of the Shockers’ forwards.

“They play so hard and they’re so active and they have so many good pieces,” Simmons said. “They change things up and they keep you off balance.”

Cleanthony Early added 13 points and Tekele Cotton had 12 for the Shockers, who haven’t lost since last year’s surprising run to the Final Four, and now face the toughest two-game stretch standing between them and an unbeaten regular season.

First up is Indiana State on Wednesday night, followed by a trip to Northern Iowa – the two closest teams to the Shockers in the Missouri Valley standings.

Incidentally, the only Valley school with a better start than the Shockers was the Indiana State team led by Larry Bird, which won its first 33 games before losing an iconic NCAA title game to Magic Johnson and Michigan State on March 26, 1979.

“It’s something a lot of people have talked about,” Baker said. “We’re excited about it.”

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