ST. LOUIS -- Joe Ragland slouched on a bench in Wichita State's locker room, trying to make sense of another Missouri Valley Conference tournament disappointment. His few remaining teammates packed in silence. Ragland wiped his eyes, stunned the Shockers had lost at the Scottrade Center again.
He grabbed two black shoes and walked toward a group of pizza boxes on a table. He picked up a stat sheet and studied the uncomfortable result: Fourth-seeded Illinois State beat top-seeded Wichita State 65-64 on Saturday in a semifinal by outscoring the Shockers by nine points in the second half. The regular-season MVC champions led by as many as 13 in the first two minutes after halftime. But unlike two previous games against the Redbirds this season, Ragland and the rest of favored Wichita State could not close.
"Can't let it carry over," Ragland, a senior guard, had said minutes earlier. "We want to be successful, because we have more games. But we can't let this affect us in our next game or practice or anything else. We've just got to move forward."
Ragland shook his head slightly near a door, dropped the sheet to the side and lifted one box before leaving the room. His exit was swift, appropriate for a team that carried visions of winning its first MVC tournament title since 1987. The Shockers had won nine consecutive games -- all but two by at least 13 points -- and looked dominant in a 24-point rout of eighth-seeded Indiana State on Friday. This year was supposed to be different.
But the final 1.1 seconds Saturday led to a familiar result. The Shockers had suffered three losses of seven points or fewer in four previous trips to the MVC tournament under coach Gregg Marshall. When the final horn sounded, senior center Garrett Stutz rubbed his fingers through his short hair and leaned toward the court after his shot bounced off the front rim. Illinois State sophomore guard Bryant Allen lifted his teammate junior guard Tyler Brown at mid-court. Stutz walked toward a tunnel in the opposite direction, his head turned toward the floor.
"We kept trying to play through the adversity we were facing and just didn't get it done," Stutz said.
As a result, Wichita State will enter the next phase of its season without the momentum it enjoyed for the past month. Afterward, Marshall was asked what seed he expects to earn going into what will be the program's first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2006. Before the loss Saturday, some experts predicted the Shockers would be slotted fourth or fifth. Marshall brushed aside that optimism with his own projection.
"It won't be as good," he said.
The Shockers will learn their placement with time, but the loss to Illinois State represented a missed opportunity. This team was the most talented Marshall had coached since he arrived from Winthrop before the 2007-08 season. Wichita State had the skill to erase memories of recent MVC tournament close calls, including a 15-point loss to Northern Iowa in the 2010 championship game, and establish itself as one of the top non-BCS teams entering March Madness.
In addition, recent history suggested the Shockers could overcome the Redbirds again. Illinois State is talented, led by junior forward Jackie Carmichael, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds despite sitting with two fouls for most of the first half. However, the Shockers swept the Redbirds with victories of three and 13 points earlier in the season. Wichita State had already proven itself as the superior team.
But because they struggled in the second half Saturday, the Shockers will watch Illinois State play second-seeded Creighton for the MVC tournament title. Wichita State should have taken advantage of opportunities to put away the average-but-inspired Redbirds, who finished with a 9-9 regular-season MVC record. Carmichael's foul problems provided an opening late in the first half and shortly after halftime, when the athletic 6-foot-9 Manhattan, Kan., native picked up his third foul 22 seconds into the second half.
Yet Wichita State could not capitalize on either chance, and its inconsistency proved costly. The Shockers' 13-point lead with 18:38 left became a one-point deficit with 8:34 remaining. From there, the Redbirds gained confidence with each passing minute, and the team with the best late-game focus won. As a result, Wichita State's first loss since falling to Drake in triple overtime on Jan. 28 proved the Shockers are not as complete as their late-season MVC run made them seem.
"How do you learn from a loss?" said Marshall, who appeared agitated at times in his postgame address. "Well, you let it sit in the pit of your stomach until it makes you violently ill. Then you expel that feeling and then you go back to work. That's all you can do."
The Shockers will get back to work, and late-game execution would be a good place to start. Wichita State was held without a field goal for the last 6:36 of the second half Saturday. The Shockers will still be a dangerous team in the NCAA tournament, but the way they allowed the Redbirds -- led by Brown's game-high 25 points -- to stay close late should give Marshall plenty of motivation to push his players before Selection Sunday.
Wichita State senior guard Toure' Murry knew a missed chance to earn an elusive MVC tournament title gave the Shockers an opportunity to grow. On his walk to the team bus, he remained positive about Wichita State's outlook.
"We've just got to be better on the defensive end," said Murry, who had 15 points. "We'll bounce back sooner or later. We're a good team. Basketball comes with wins and losses. We'll be ready next game."
Soon, though, the Shockers will be ready to forget their latest MVC tournament letdown.