Xavier Bell has career-best game to lead Wichita State basketball to Myrtle Beach win

Wichita State junior guard Xavier Bell led the Shockers to an opening-round win in the Myrtle Beach Invitational over Coastal Carolina on Thursday.

For the first time since the 2019-20 season, the Wichita State men’s basketball team is off to a 4-0 start.

The Shockers pulled away in the second half and secured an 86-77 win over Coastal Carolina on its home court at the HTC Center in Conway, S.C. on Thursday in an opening-round game in the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

Here is what WSU fans need to know about the victory:

1. Xavier Bell continues strong start to junior season

In 31 games last season, Xavier Bell only had four double-digit scoring games — a total he has already matched in the first four games of his junior year.

Not only did the Wichita native hit double figures again on Thursday, he played the best game yet in his WSU career with 20 points, a career-high seven rebounds, five assists, career-high three steals and one block in 34 minutes.

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior has been successful this season using his size advantage over smaller point guards and Thursday was no exception. He scored 12 of his game-high 20 points in the paint against Coastal Carolina with another pair of free throws coming on a drive.

2. Hot outside shooting follows Shockers to Myrtle Beach

In its two prior games against Division-I competition, Wichita State made just seven 3-pointers and its 3-point rate of less than 22% ranked No. 350 in the country.

But the Shockers did knock down 10 3-pointers in their tune-up game in Wichita against Friends University, and that hot shooting followed them to their opening game in the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

WSU made 12 triples, the most it has made beyond the arc in a game since the Shockers canned 14 at Koch Arena in a 95-90 loss to Tulane on Jan. 25, 2023.

Colby Rogers, Dalen Ridgnal and Isaac Abidde all made multiple 3-pointers in the first half when nine 3-pointers helped the Shockers stave off a feisty Coastal Carolina team. When the Chanticleers tried to slow WSU down with a zone defense, the Shockers responded by knocking down a handful of 3-pointers to force them out of the zone.

“Hats off to Wichita State. They’re very good and they played well,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. “They shot the 3 better than we thought that they would. They had some guys that really knocked some shots down.”

A 3-pointer helped WSU clinch victory, as Harlond Beverly drained a wide-open shot beyond the arc with 3:53 remaining to cap a 7-2 spurt that allowed the Shockers to extend their lead to 77-68.

After hardly shooting any 3-pointers in its first two games, WSU shot 12-of-36 from distance against Coastal Carolina and finished with a 46.5% 3-point rate.

3. A rejuvenated Kenny Pohto helps Shockers win 50-50 balls in second half

In a tournament format, players weren’t able to warm up for as long as they normally do in a standalone game.

That’s what Kenny Pohto chalked up his sluggish first half to on Thursday, as he entered halftime with no points on 0-for-3 shooting and two air balls on open shots.

“It was a little hard because I had to warm up mid-game,” Pohto said. “But my teammates and coaches trust in me and they kept pushing me to keep going, shots are going to start falling. I just kept doing what I was supposed to do.”

Pohto was the catalyst for a Shocker turnaround in the second half, as WSU started winning loose balls and was more active on the defensive end in coach Paul Mills’ opinion.

WSU blitzed Coastal Carolina, 19-9, in the first seven minutes of the second half, as Pohto scored 13 points during that span to spark the Shockers. In fact, the 6-foot-10 junior from Sweden finished with 16 points — all scored following halftime — to go along with eight rebounds and one block.

“We brought the juice in the second half,” Pohto said. “I started off slow, but I just kept focusing on doing the little things and not letting a bad first half affect me too much. I tried to stay active on defense because that helps me get going.”

Not only did Pohto connect on a pair of 3-pointers in the second half, he also finished with eight deflections, the second-most on the team, according to Mills.

“I didn’t say anything to him,” Mills said. “The thing you realize about good players is that they don’t want to have two bad halves, so they’re going to make the corrections mentally. But I didn’t think it was anything schematically or basketball-wise. He was getting good looks. I wasn’t worried because I know he’s a good player and to his credit, he dialed in and got it going in the second half.”

Shocker star of the game

It’s about time to honor Wichita native Xavier Bell, who has been a steady presence for the Shockers in their 4-0 start and played arguably his best game in a WSU uniform on Thursday. As detailed above, Rogers scored a WSU career-high 20 points to go along with seven rebounds, five assists, three steals, one block and five turnovers.

Others worth mentioning are Dalen Ridgnal, who sparked the team once again in the first half and finished with 15 points, six rebounds and two steals. Kenny Pohto also bounced back from a slow first half to score all 16 of his points in the second half and add eight rebounds.

The game turned when …

WSU appeared to be on its way to a runaway victory when it built a 14-point lead out of halftime, but Coastal Carolina came roaring back to claw within 66-63 with 9 minutes, 36 seconds remaining.

“We got complacent and we’ll learn from it and grow from it,” WSU coach Paul Mills said.

With the game still in the balance, WSU’s defense and rebounding came through for stops and then the offense delivered the scores to finally pull away.

Colby Rogers scored two straight baskets, then Harlond Beverly drained a wide-open 3-pointer for a 7-2 spurt that gave WSU a 77-68 advantage with 3:53 remaining.

“It’s a long game,” Rogers said. “It’s not a 38-minute game or a 39-minute game. It’s a 40-minute game and we knew we had to play a complete game to win this one.”

Coastal Carolina remained persistent down the stretch but never came within a possession away from the lead following that game-defining run.

“You’ve got to give hats off to Wichita State,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. “We were competing. We got it to within three, but they responded and that’s credit to them.”

What’s next for Wichita State basketball

The Shockers (4-0) will face Liberty (3-0) in the semifinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational at 8 p.m. Central on Friday with the game broadcast on ESPNU.

WSU has already moved up more than 40 spots in the KenPom rankings from the start of the season, as the Shockers come in at No. 100 entering Friday’s game against No. 55 Liberty.