DAYTON, Ohio — Wichita State’s guards let their Final Four experience make the difference in a defense-dominated First Four game.
Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker led a surge at the start of the second half that put the Shockers on pace for a 70-50 victory over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, making the big shots in a game with very few uncontested ones.
The seniors who were part of the Shockers’ 2013 Final Four team led the way. VanVleeet — the two-time Missouri Valley player of the year — scored 14 points despite a cut on his head that sent him to the bench in the first half. Ron Baker also had 14. Together, they scored all of the points in a decisive 11-0 run that opened the second half.
“Fred and I hit a couple of 3s to get us going early on,” Baker said. “The momentum shifted slowly and we kind of grasped it and kept on rolling.”
The Shockers (25-8) play Arizona on Thursday in Providence, Rhode Island.
Vanderbilt (19-14) couldn’t take advantage of its pronounced size advantage on offense and never led in the second half. Joe Toye and Riley LaChance had 10 apiece. The Commodores shot 30 percent from the field, went 3 of 19 from beyond the arc, and were 15 of 26 on free throws.
“They’re a very good defense and they play really physical,” LaChance said. “We did get some open looks and nothing happened to fall.”
The Shockers returned three starters from the team that knocked off Indiana and Kansas to reach the Sweet 16 last year, drawing a No. 10 ranking in the preseason poll. A lot of early injuries — including VanVleet’s pulled hamstring — forced the Shockers to reinvent themselves.
They got yet another setback on Tuesday when VanVleet left to get treated for a cut on the right side of his forehead only a few minutes into the game. He gave the Shockers a pep talk during the next timeout but stayed on the bench.
“It didn’t hurt at all,” said VanVleet, who had a bandage on the wound. “I didn’t even know it was bleeding. I was just hoping it wouldn’t need stitches. I hate to get stitched. He patched me up real quick.”
VanVleet got back into the game with 13:13 left in the half and hit a baseline jumper for his first points.
He and Baker let their tournament experience show at the start of the second half, scoring all the points in an 11-0 run for a 41-30 lead — the biggest by either team up to that point. Baker hit a 3, and VanVleet made a pair from beyond the arc during the spurt.
Vanderbilt cut the lead to one point, but Wichita State dug in and hit back-to-back 3s that pushed it to 57-48 and left the Shockers in control.
Back in health, they’re moving on in the tournament, getting the better of a defensive game.
There were few open shots in a choppy first half that ended tied 30-30 — about what was expected. Wichita State and Vanderbilt ranked sixth and seventh in field-goal defense. The Shockers get pressure with their guards, while the Commodores used their front-line size to redirect shots.
Seven-foot center Damian Jones missed both of his shots and all of his four free throws in the first half as Vanderbilt failed to take advantage of its size on offense. He finished with five points.
Vanderbilt: Is 10-15 all-time in 14 appearances.
Wichita State: Is 16-13 all-time in 13 appearances. The Shockers are in it for the fifth straight year, a school record, and have won at least one game in each of the last four years.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores blocked five shots, with 7-foot-1 forward Luke Kornet swatting away two. Kornet was fourth in the nation with three blocks per game.
Wichita State: The Shockers worked on their shooting after going 2 of 24 from beyond the arc during a Missouri Valley Tournament loss to Northern Illinois. Against the Commodores, they missed all five from beyond the arc in the first half. They finished 7 of 19 overall.
Vanderbilt: Season finished.
Wichita State: Plays Arizona on Thursday in Providence, Rhode Island.