Although another date with Northern Iowa is a strong possibility, Wichita State first has to dispatch its only conference opponent to stay within single digits in both meetings during the regular season.
The eighth-ranked Shockers will try to stay focused and take another step toward a second straight Missouri Valley tournament championship Saturday when they take on physical Illinois State in the semifinals.
Wichita State (27-3) continued its MVC dominance Friday, improving to 39-1 over the past two seasons with a 56-45 win over No. 9 seed Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals.
The Shockers’ only defeat in that span was a 70-54 loss to No. 11 Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls on Jan. 31 before they returned the favor with a 74-60 home win Feb. 28.
With semifinal victories, the league favorites will battle for a third time in Sunday’s title game at Scottrade Center. Getting there isn’t likely to come easy for the Shockers against an Illinois State team that’s been playing well of late.
The fourth-seeded Redbirds (20-11) have won five straight for the first time since early in the 2012-13 season after Friday’s 71-67 quarterfinal victory over No. 5 seed Evansville. Deontae Hawkins made four 3-pointers and finished with 17 points for Illinois State, which outscored the Aces 40-30 in the second half.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, who added 13 points, scored a team-high 18 in a 68-62 home loss to the Shockers on Feb. 14. Daishon Knight had 24 points Jan. 4 when Hawkins and Akoon-Purcell missed a 70-62 road defeat due to injury.
Wichita State’s 15 other victories in the MVC came by an average of 18.0 points.
Led by Akoon-Purcell (5.7 rebounds per game), Hawkins (5.4) and Reggie Lynch (5.4), Illinois State has posted a plus-8.7 rebounding margin over its last four games, and its plus-5.1 season mark was second only to Wichita State’s plus-5.8 in the conference.
After getting beaten 32-27 on the boards in the first meeting, Wichita State owned a 40-26 advantage last month. That remains an area of concern for the Shockers after they were outrebounded 35-26 on Friday.
“Just their size and athleticism (is a challenge),” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “They’re big and athletic and pound the glass. We weren’t great at that (in the quarterfinals).”
Wichita State’s full-court pressure has been great most of the season, and the Shockers have limited Illinois State to a combined 39.0 percent shooting, including 9 of 33 from 3-point range. They also held Southern Illinois to 34.0 percent shooting while forcing 18 turnovers Friday.
“We just did what we had to do to get the job done, and we did,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “So I think all of us are looking forward to moving on.”
VanVleet finished with 13 points, Tekele Cotton had 12 to top 1,000 for his career and Ron Baker added 10. Baker has keyed the success against the Redbirds, totaling 34 points while shooting 60.0 percent in the two victories.
Wichita State has won seven in a row in the series and 13 of the past 14. Illinois State’s only win during that stretch was a 65-64 upset of the No. 15 Shockers in the 2012 MVC tournament semis.
The Redbirds have dropped their last six matchups versus ranked opponents, four of which came against the Shockers.