SALT LAKE CITY -- Wichita State junior Cleanthony Early is finally feeling well again.
Just in time to help push his team into the NCAA round of 32.
After a frustrating Missouri Valley Conference tournament in which he averaged only five points -- while vomiting, running a fever and battling lethargy -- the 6-foot-8 forward scored 21 points on 7-for-15 shooting on Thursday as the ninth-seeded Shockers beat No. 8 seed Pittsburgh 73-55.
In a defensive showdown in which points were at a grit-it-out premium, his bounce back was key.
“I encountered him by happenstance, just he and I in the elevator ... last night," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “I told him, ‘We need you to play well. You’re a very good player, and it’s hard for us to win when you don’t play well.’
“And he goes, 'I know. I got you.’ I think he felt bad about the way he played in Saint Louis, and this is a big stage and he showed what he’s capable of.”
Before the game, Marshall had joked that the first team to 55 points would probably prevail, and it certainly looked that way from the get-go. These teams, in many ways, were mirror images, boasting players who like to bruise on the boards, demoralize with defense, bully with lineups that go 10 deep.
Pittsburgh held the size advantage, but from the beginning, the Shockers seemed more aggressive, pushing their “Play Angry” motto as they dove for loose balls, scrapped for rebounds, forced turnover after turnover.
The Panthers led 21-19 with 3:34 left in the first half when Wichita State began to pull away, outscoring Pitt 7-0 (including a layup by Early) to take a 26-21 lead into halftime. Early & Co extended that run to 9-0 to begin the second half. And although Pitt closed to within four points on a 3-pointer by Durand Johnson with 17:24 left, it never got any closer.
Partially because that was the Panthers’ only 3-pointer (they were 1-for-17 for the game).
“Those guys are tough," said Pitt guard Tray Woodall, who finished 1-for-12 with two points. “They came straight from the beginning of the game and they were physical until the end of the game.”
So much so that the Shockers held Pitt to 35.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 percent on 3-pointers. They outrebounded the Panthers by five, scored 21 points off 15 turnovers -- and ended up leading by double figures for the final seven minutes despite shooting only 38.8 percent for the game themselves.
But getting Early -- who scored 39 points against SIU in January, and who Marshall thought could be an X factor for his team -- back on offensive track was important.
“It means a lot," Early said of his -- and his team’s -- performance. “But we’re pleased not satisfied ... we want to keep going."
And if he can keep performing like this, they have a better shot.
"Yes," he said, “I’m feeling a whole lot better than I did.”