ST. LOUIS — Paris Lee gathered his teammates at the free-throw line just before Sunday’s second half began.
Illinois State’s basketball team trailed by eight against Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game. The Redbirds’ senior leader said his message was to “just keep fighting … don't play the score. Just take it one possession at a time.”
However, on this day, No. 21-ranked Wichita State clearly took the fight to ISU. What comes next is a long week to see if a 19-year NCAA Tournament wait ends — or continues — for the Redbirds.
Conner Frankamp scored a game-high 19 points as the No. 2-seeded Shockers pulled away for a 71-51 victory over top-seed ISU before a Scottrade Center crowd of 11,744. Wichita State (30-4) held the Redbirds to a season-low 29.3 percent field goal shooting while posting its 14th straight win.
ISU’s eight-game winning streak was snapped as the Redbirds dropped to 27-6. Whether that’s good enough to make the NCAA field when pairings are revealed next Sunday was something ISU coach Dan Muller couldn’t answer.
“If they go based on one game they saw — they probably don’t watch as many games of ours as they watch other teams — but hopefully they’ll look at the full body of work we have and obviously we want to be in,” said Muller.
Lee, who led the Redbirds with 18 points, single-handedly tried to keep ISU in contact with the Shockers while his team struggled on the offensive end. His 3-pointer with 25 seconds left cut Wichita State’s lead to 33-25 at the intermission.
The game was still within reach when Lee drove inside and hit a spinning shot and was fouled. But he missed the free throw, keeping the deficit at 46-37 with 11:19 left.
It soon spiraled out of control.
The Shockers went on a 9-0 run to grab a 53-37 lead. MiKyle McIntosh started to give the Redbirds another scoring option and sank two free throws to cut Wichita State’s advantage to 57-44 with 6:56 left.
Wichita State then put the game away as Markis McDuffie scored six points in a 10-0 surge that ballooned the lead to 67-44.
“Credit their defense,” said the 6-foot Lee, who had 6-6 Zach Brown often guarding him. “They put different guys, lengthy and quick guys, on some of our wings. It kind of messed with us, but at the end of the day we didn’t make shots.”
McIntosh scored 13 of his 16 points in the final eight minutes. No other ISU player scored more than five points. The Redbirds’ struggles extended to the free-throw line as well, where they went 11 of 19.
“I was just thinking about it too much,” said McIntosh of his slow start. “It didn’t knock me off my game. Nothing you can do about it. This is how it goes sometimes. You miss some shots and you make some shots.”
Frankamp, a junior guard, set the tone early. He hit two 3-pointers that helped Wichita State take a 16-9 lead. Frankamp, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, and fellow guard Landry Shamet went 6 of 10 outside the arc.
Foul trouble hurt the Redbirds from the start, especially in the front court. Phil Fayne picked up two quick fouls in the first three minutes. David Ndiaye got his third foul with 8:17 left in the first half.
Fayne and Deontae Hawkins eventually fouled out. Hawkins also picked up his second technical after his fifth foul with 5:06 left and watched the rest of the game from the locker room.
“I know the foul trouble and our inability to make some shots that, if you’re going to beat a really good team, you have to play really well,” said Muller. “When you play really well you have to make shots, even some tough ones. We just didn’t do those things today.”
The deep, talented and skilled Shockers had plenty to do with that. McDuffie finished with 16 points, while Shamet added 14.
Wichita State shot 38 percent from the field, but went 26 of 37 at the line and grabbed a 42-41 rebounding edge.
“I thought it was a very thorough performance. We defended well. We made our free throws. We got the ball inside. We rebounded well. We shot it well,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. “So that results in a 20-point win, and that’s hard to do against that team.”
ISU handed the Shockers their last loss, a 76-62 defeat in Normal on Jan. 14. Marshall made some moves after that game, putting Shamet at the point and moving Frankamp to the wing.
They’ve rolled ever since, including a 41-point rout of ISU on Feb. 4 in Wichita, Kan.
“I said it the other day, this might be the best team they have had,” said Muller. “I mean, a 35-0 team (in 2013-14) is hard to beat … but as these guys have grown and they don’t have one senior, I mean, they're really, really, really good.”