There will be a lot more than pride on the line for Wichita State and Houston when the two teams square off in one of the two American Athletic Conference tournament semifinal games on Saturday afternoon at the Amway Center in Orlando.
The two teams have split their two games against each other this season, with each team winning on their respective home court.
The winner this time will get a berth in the AAC championship game and likely an improved NCAA seeding.
No. 11 Wichita State earned a spot in the semifinal with an 89-81 win over Temple on Friday while 21st-ranked Houston beat Central Florida 84-56 to advance. No. 8 Cincinnati, the top-ranked team in this event and the regular-season league-champion, will face fifth-seeded Memphis in the first semifinal on Saturday.
Wichita State (25-6) had its hands full against Temple, leading by just three points with just 2:23 to play before the Shockers‘ defense and successful free-throw shooting took charge.
Landry Shamet led the Shockers with 24 points and tied the AAC record with six 3-pointers, and Rashard Kelly scored a career-high 16 points for Wichita State in the win. Kelly was 6 of 8 on field goals and 4 of 5 from the free-throw line.
“It’s March, the most important time of the year,” Kelly said of his shooting prowess. “You’ve got to win or go home, survive and advance, so we’re going to do whatever it takes.”
Shamet said he was just taking what was coming to him and making the most of his opportunities.
“I got a couple good looks early on and that’s my mindset every night, just take what comes to me, don’t force anything,” Shamet said. “Guys were getting me open looks, and I was just trying to step into them and knock them down. That’s what I did.”
Wichita State is a lock for the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens in this event, but coach Gregg Marshall said his team is hungry for a championship.
“We have come close to winning two championships,” Marshall said of his team’s performance in the regular season. “Cincinnati got us Sunday, and they won the regular season; they certainly deserved it. And then we were one possession away from winning a championship in Maui and kind of gave that one away.
“So, we need to finish to win a championship, and we haven’t done that yet this year. So, our guys did what they needed to do tonight to beat a very good team, a team that’s beaten tremendous teams throughout the course of the year.”
Houston (25-6) dominated UCF, leading for most of the game before pulling away in the second half as the Knights never got closer than eight points after halftime.
“You never know how these tournament games are going to go,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “I applaud our guys for their focus, being ready to play.
“We had our senior game Sunday against Connecticut. We took Monday off, and then we kind of flushed the regular season down the toilet and we said, hey, 24-6 is nice, but if you come up here and lose your first game, nobody’s going to remember some of that stuff. So, we had to make sure we went in with the right attitude.”
“We just came out and wanted to hit them in the mouth first, and not let up for 40 minutes.” Gray said. “And that’s what we tried to do and now we’re on to the next round. So super proud of my guys for coming and winning the first game.”
The Cougars had a 37-28 edge in rebounds against UCF and have outrebounded their opponents in all but five games this season.