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Inspired play by Wichita State basketball not enough, as Houston pulls away for late win

It must have felt like déjà vu to Houston men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson at Koch Arena on Thursday.

Back in the Roundhouse with a striped-out and hyped-up Wichita State crowd and national ESPN audience watching, Houston’s final trip to Koch Arena before departing for the Big 12 was strikingly similar to its first trip five years ago.

The difference was this Houston squad is ranked No. 3 in the country and the top-rated team in the country by KenPom and NET metrics. The Cougars showed why Thursday when they absorbed WSU’s best punch and still came away with a 70-61 win.

“It’s heartbreaking, man,” said WSU junior Jaykwon Walton, who scored a game-high 24 points. “We wanted this game as bad as anybody in the country. They’re a great team, though. They showed why they’re No. 3 in the country. They never got rattled.”

It was arguably the most inspired effort of the season from the Shockers against the first top-3 opponent to come to Wichita in 33 years, but it wasn’t enough to register the program’s first home win against a top-3 team since topping No. 2 Louisville in 1967. Houston improved to 21-2 overall and maintained its first-place lead in the American Athletic Conference standings with a 9-1 record in league play.

Houston’s trips to Koch Arena have usually elicited the best performances from the Shockers and Thursday’s game was no different. Sampson had nothing but praise for WSU’s program, Koch Arena and Wichita fans following what proved to be a third straight dramatic game between the two teams in the Roundhouse.

Wichita State University’s Kenny Pohto, left, and James Rojas, center, and Xavier Bell, right, cheer after Rojas was fouled and made a basket against the University of Houston during their game at Koch Arena.
Wichita State University’s Kenny Pohto, left, and James Rojas, center, and Xavier Bell, right, cheer after Rojas was fouled and made a basket against the University of Houston during their game at Koch Arena.

“I think it’s just because of all of the hype around their name,” said WSU senior point guard Craig Porter, who has played in all three of those games. “Any team that comes here with a ranking and just having a program that they have, you want to beat those guys and set a standard. You get a win on them and it can scare other people, so it makes it easier for you. We came in here with that mindset and executed for about 35 minutes and those last five minutes we just had a little lapse.”

That has been a familiar refrain for WSU (11-11, 4-6 AAC) in a season that is racking up “woulda, coulda, shoulda” losses.

After battling for 35 minutes, the Shockers lost their concentration once again in crunch time. WSU held a 54-51 lead over the No. 1-ranked KenPom team with 6:24 remaining, in part because it had made a concerted effort to keep the Cougars, the fourth-best offensive rebounding team in the country, off the glass.

But Houston grabbed three offensive rebounds on three straight possessions down the stretch and scored five second-chance points. The Cougars also separated themselves from WSU with their shot-making, as they hit three 3-pointers (two from star freshman Jarace Walker, the future NBA first-round draft pick who finished with a team-high 15 points) in what became a game-clinching 11-1 run down the stretch to pull away for a 62-55 lead.

Meanwhile, WSU clanked away from deep and made just 15% (3 of 20) of its shots beyond the arc. Outside of Walton’s three makes, the rest of the Shockers went 0 for 14. Another ice-cold performance dropped WSU’s season percentage on 3-pointers to 29.3%, which ranks No. 344 out of 363 teams in the country.

Wichita State University’s James Rojas scores in the first half against the University of Houston during their game at Koch Arena.
Wichita State University’s James Rojas scores in the first half against the University of Houston during their game at Koch Arena.

“Our kids fought all night long and that’s the character of this team,” WSU head coach Isaac Brown said. “The last four minutes just wasn’t good enough. They protected the paint and took the ball out of Porter’s hands and forced us to skip it and we didn’t make enough wide-open threes.”

WSU performed well in Brown’s three keys to the game — keep Houston off the glass (WSU out-rebounded the Cougars 37-32), limit turnovers (WSU had 12) and prevent Houston from scoring in transition (Houston had just four fast-break points).

The scrappy, physical contest seemed to play to the strengths of Walton (Georgia) and James Rojas (Alabama), two players who came from SEC programs.

Walton matched his career-high 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting and was WSU’s lone source of consistent offense against Houston’s stingy defense. In fact, his presence on the court (he battled foul trouble throughout the game) proved vital for WSU, which out-scored Houston by nine points in his 27 minutes.

“I live for these types of games,” Walton said. “I was riled up all week long.”

To hang with Houston on the glass, players have to put their hard hats on and bring a different level of physicality. Rojas thrived in that kind of environment, finishing with 15 points and seven rebounds, teaming up with center Kenny Pohto (career-high 12 rebounds) to help WSU win the rebounding battle.

“They have five guys throwing their bodies around like I do, so I think that made me even more aggressive,” Rojas said. “It was a war down there every time (for rebounds). If you got a hand on one, somebody else had a hand on it too. You just have to be strong and grab it with two hands and come down with it.”

Meanwhile, Houston’s constant pressure seemed to wear on Porter, WSU’s do-everything point guard. Porter played all but 96 seconds in the game and spent every second chasing Houston’s talented guard trio of Marcus Sasser (15 points), Jamal Shead (13) and Tramon Mark (12) around on defense and then dealt with Houston’s unrelenting double-teams on ball screens on offense.

The heavy burden showed, as Porter struggled to his worst shooting performance of the season in a 2-of-14 showing from the field with seven points, five turnovers and two assists.

Despite shooting just 39% from the field, 15% on 3-pointers and missing seven free throws, WSU’s offense still scored a respectable 0.97 points per possession against Houston’s elite defense, thanks to 17 second-chance points generated by 15 offensive rebounds. But without Porter’s usual efficient performance, WSU lacked the punch it needed to prevail.

Wichita State University’s Gus Okafor and Houston’s Jarace Walker scramble for the ball in the first half against the University of Houston during their game at Koch Arena.
Wichita State University’s Gus Okafor and Houston’s Jarace Walker scramble for the ball in the first half against the University of Houston during their game at Koch Arena.

“Porter has such a big role for them because he is their best player on offense and defense, so it’s hard to do that for a long stretch,” Shead said. “We tried to be consistent in our attack and be aggressive with him. It’s hard to keep the same energy the whole game when we’re so aggressive with our defense at the point of attack. We blitzed him the whole game and that takes a toll on you. I think we kind of wore him down.”

Despite the loss, it felt like WSU took a step forward in the right direction. This season has proven the Shockers can hang with great teams, as they held leads entering the final six minutes against the No. 3 (Houston) and No. 7 (Kansas State) ranked teams in the country.

But progress never feels as good in a loss.

“At the beginning of the season, it was always us beating ourselves,” Porter said. “I feel like we’ve improved all around and I see the positives. We had this game won, but they came back and showed a lot of toughness. I’m proud of the guys for the way they fought. You can’t ask for much better than that. If we play that way all the time, there’s no telling what we can do.”