A nervous energy began to build inside Koch Arena as the final seconds ticked off the clock and Tyson Etienne stood just inside the half-court line dribbling the ball.
Eight seconds left...dribble, dribble.
Seven seconds left...dribble, dribble.
Six seconds left...dribble, dribble.
A Wichita State fan in the front row screamed, ‘Do something!’ at Etienne, who still stood 35 feet from the basket with the score tied in the first game of the season against Jacksonville State.
Why wasn’t he attacking yet? What is he waiting on?
But Etienne runs on Tyson Time and he had already decided in his mind he was launching from deep. How deep? He wasn’t exactly sure until he later learned he pulled up from a preposterous 31 feet, 9½ inches away from the basket.
It was “The Shot” seen around the country on college basketball’s opening night: Etienne’s step-back, game-winner to lift the Wichita State men’s basketball team to a dramatic 60-57 win over Jacksonville State. The only thing more cold-blooded than the shot itself was Etienne’s reaction, which was no reaction at all, simply turning around and walking calmly the other way as pandemonium ensued around him.
It was Etienne’s first game-winning shot in the closing seconds, an iconic moment that will likely follow him the rest of his career. But his reaction made it seem as if he had done it a hundred times before — and that’s because he has, regardless of how many anonymous accounts on social media adamantly label it a bad shot.
“I put myself in that position every day. At the end of my workouts, I put myself in those types of positions making those types of shots. I shot them this morning,” said Etienne, who finished with a game-high 16 points. “So it really didn’t feel like an out-of-normal shot for me. I was confident because I worked on it so many times. I could have gone to the rim, but I feel like me shooting that shot would be the same as me going to the rim.”
With WSU in the bonus, should Etienne have attacked the basket? Perhaps. WSU coach Isaac Brown even admitted afterward he was hoping his star player would drive.
But Etienne had no interest in ceding control over the situation. He didn’t want the game to be decided on whether a referee blew the whistle. Etienne wanted full control.
Fans in the stands may have been going, ‘What are you doing—YES!’ but Etienne’s coach and teammates weren’t surprised to see him take and make a shot from that distance.
“He makes that shot a lot in practice,” Brown said. “We go 1-4 low and a lot of times he’ll make a deep three. He’s one of those guys who works on that.”
“I’ve probably seen that shot like 100 times by now,” WSU junior Dexter Dennis said. “I’m not going to say I was surprised by it.”
While the game-winner is the play that wound up No. 6 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays, Etienne’s true brilliance was in his flawless closing of the game in the final two minutes. And WSU needed every last play down the stretch to stave off an upset-minded Jacksonville State squad and avoid losing a “buy” game in its season-opener for the second time in four years.
It’s important to note for the first 38 minutes, JSU had done an admirable job face-guarding and hounding Etienne to limit him to a modest nine points on 3-of-12 shooting with three turnovers. Even with its star struggling, WSU did not hesitate to put the ball in the hands of Etienne after he had played most of the game working off the ball. But when his team needed him the most, Etienne elevated his level of play and delivered once again in the clutch.
On WSU’s final four possessions, Etienne helped WSU erase a two-point deficit twice and delivered two go-ahead shots, both coming in the final 30 seconds. His banked-in floater put WSU ahead, 57-55, with 28 seconds left, then when Jalen Finch answered for JSU to tie the game again, Etienne hit the Damian Lillard-like dagger.
“Good players have confidence, they don’t care how many times they miss shots, they think the next one is going to go in,” Brown said. “That’s what you have to do in order to be a great player. Tyson loves taking shots late in the game. He wants the ball in his hands. He wants to be the one who makes the decision.”
Jacksonville State had controlled much of the game, leading for more than 27 minutes compared to WSU’s short 3:11 in front, and rallied in the second half playing in a rowdy road environment.
They had proven their resilience, so to go out on such a daring and brazen shot — that was well-contested by Jalen Gibbs, no less — was a bitter feeling for Jacksonville State, a senior-laden team with real expectations of winning the ASUN conference and playing in the NCAA Tournament later this season.
“I knew (Etienne) was going to take the shot, but I don’t know if Gibbs could have done a better job of making him take a tough shot,” JSU coach Ray Harper said. “But sometimes good players make tough shots and that’s what he did.
“I told our kids after that one, ‘If that’s who we are for the next four months, we’re going to win a lot of basketball games.’”
WSU won shooting 38.6% from the field, missing 18 of 22 three-pointers and being out-shot by its opponent (JSU made 42.3% of its shots). Sound familiar? It should because WSU won its 20th game while shooting under 40% since the start of the 2018-19 season, the most of any team in the country.
Dennis was WSU’s only other double-digit scorer (14 points) and he secured a game-high eight rebounds. True freshman Kenny Pohto was a bright spot for the team, as he added eight points, four rebounds, two steals and delivered a momentum-swinging dunk in transition during the second half. Another good performance came from point guard Craig Porter, who came off the bench to grab seven rebounds and score four points.
After shooting 50% on free throws in back-to-back one-point losses to end last season, Brown was particularly pleased with his team making 12 of 14 free throws, including its last six. WSU’s success at the foul line became even more important when JSU struggled (5 of 11) on its freebies.
“We need those types of games to help us once we get back in another close game, you know how to operate,” Brown said. “I thought we operated down the stretch. I was so proud that those kids kept battling. We never gave up. It wasn’t going our way early. We weren’t making a lot of shots, but we kept defending and finally the crowd got into it, which we really needed, and we stepped up and made some shots and we made our free throws.”
Efficient offense will be an ongoing battle for WSU, which struggled to consistently execute its half-court sets into easy looks and then struggled to knock down the open perimeter shots it did produce.
But the Shockers were resourceful — forcing 17 turnovers and turning 14 offensive rebounds into a 15-4 advantage in second-chance points. The defensive rebounding (WSU boarded out at 69.7%) wasn’t great, but it was an improvement over the porous efforts from last season.
WSU’s season-opening performance was far from perfect, but in the struggle came several valuable learning lessons to take into its next game on Saturday against South Alabama.
“Giving us some adversity is good for us, especially early,” Dennis said. “Because you get tested when you’re down. Everybody can cheer and clap when you’re winning, but when you’re losing, who has that same attitude? ‘We’re going to win this game.’
“We’ve got a lot of wrinkles to iron out, but I thought this was a great game for us.”