Gregg Marshall bumped into his X-factor by happenstance in the elevator of the team hotel Wednesday evening. His message to his top offensive threat was simple.
The Wichita State coach told junior forward Cleanthony Early he needed him to play well. He told Early how the team struggles to win games when the 6-foot-8 swingman struggles.
"This is a big stage," Marshall said, "and he showed what he's capable of. I'm so proud of him."
Before Thursday's 73-55 win over Pitt, Early had a forgettable three games in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
He scored 15 points in three games after terrorizing MVC teams with his all-around game throughout the regular season.
But he made those three games magically disappear by playing up to his potential in the biggest game of his career at EnergySolutions Arena.
"It's a new game, and everything in that tournament that happened is over with and you got to do what you do," Early said. "Play basketball."
When the Shockers couldn't find a way to put the ball in the hoop in the first half, Early was there to pick up the slack. He crashed the boards, hit a couple of jumpers and attacked early.
He scored 10 of the team's first 21 points.
"Play like you want it," Early said, all smiles after his 21-point performance in the win over the Panthers. "Play with passion and heart."
Marshall thought back to the circumstantial elevator ride with his star junior Wednesday night. The Shocker coach said he remembers Early struggling to put the ball in the hoop Wednesday in practice, and he pointed out Early going 0 for 6 from 3-point land.
"I could tell he was focused," Marshall said.