ST. LOUIS — Southern Illinois' game plan was to prevent Wichita State's stars and inside players from taking over.
That left defensive stopper Tekele Cotton, and a full-court press, a combination that pulled the eighth-ranked Shockers out of an early rut.
"We did not want VanVleet or Baker or the bigs to beat us," Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said after a 56-45 loss in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament Friday. "We said, 'We're going to make Cotton beat us today, and quite frankly that's what it came down to."
Wichita State turned up the defensive pressure after a slow start and Cotton, the Valley defensive player the last two seasons, scored nine straight points to begin a 17-3 pull-away run in the first half.
"I thought Tekele was big and made a lot of big plays with the ball, off the ball, and opened things up," guard Fred VanVleet said. "We did enough to get it done."
VanVleet had 13 points, four assists and three steals for the Shockers (28-3), who beat Southern Illinois (12-21) for the third straight time.
"We've got guys that don't like to lose, and I think that's all that is," VanVleet said.
Cotton topped 1,000 career points and finished with 12 points, three assists and a block. Ron Baker had 10 points, three assists, two blocks and a steal.
Jalen Pendleton had 12 points and Anthony Beane 10 for Southern Illinois, which shot 34 percent and committed 18 turnovers. Beane scored eight of the Salukis' first 10 points but missed nine of his last 10 shots.
"I thought we did a pretty good job except for the first minute or two," coach Gregg Marshall said. "I think the latter part of the first half, we were much better, and he stopped making those shots he was making earlier.'
Wichita State will face either Illinois State or Evansville, the fourth and fifth seeds, in the semifinals Saturday.
The team planned on watching the first half of that quarterfinal at the Scottrade Center before returning to the hotel. On Thursday night, the hotel TV did not carry the play-in games.
"We had the Blues," Marshall said. "I'm from South Carolina, I'm not much of a hockey fan."
Hinson's advice for both teams was to forget about Wichita State's pedigree. The Shockers were 35-0 last year before losing to Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final, and have barely missed a beat.
"You've got to get by the aura," Hinson said. "We were paralyzed because we got afraid. You've got people out there that are dealing with a lot bigger issues than a 1-2-2 press. Just do what you do and do it the best you can."
The Shockers were 17-1 in conference play, the lone loss at Northern Iowa on Jan. 31, and clinched their second straight regular season title with a 16-point victory over Northern Iowa in the season finale.
"I would say what impressed me the most was our defense," Marshall said. "You hold teams to 45, you have a pretty good chance of winning."
Cotton is averaging 9.4 points. His first points of the game, including a 3-pointer that ended a 1-for-6 drought from long range, put Wichita State up 19-15 with just over five minutes left in the half.
"Anytime we can press and speed the other team up and get the steals and start our transition game, it definitely gets us flowing and gets us energized," Baker said.
Southern Illinois, the No. 9 seed, had 11 turnovers in the half and managed just five points the last eight minutes before the break.
The eighth and ninth seeds have never beaten the top seed in the conference tourney. Southern Illinois beat Missouri State in a play-in game on Thursday.
"I thought it really came down to our defense," Beane said. "They got a lot of easy buckets."