By Paul Suellentrop The Wichita Eagle
ST. LOUIS — Three Shockers and coach Gregg Marshall sat on the interview platform and tried to explain the unexplainable. In the locker room, a similar scene. Wichita State did things no other college basketball team did for five months and did it in a way that made its fans proud.
Then it ended and March Madness will go on without the Shockers, unthinkable as that seems.
Eighth-seeded Kentucky erased a five-point deficit in the final five minutes to defeat top-seeded Wichita State 78-76 and end college basketball’s longest unbeaten streak on Sunday at Scottrade Center in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“For us to end like this, it’s depressing,” said sophomore Ron Baker. “Overall, we did prove a point. We just came up one play short.”
One play. One play to keep writing history.
“Great basketball game,” Marshall said. “I told Coach (John) Calipari that. I told their players that. I told our team that.”
He won’t need to tell anybody who watched.
Kentucky (26-10) played with power and poise, despite its many freshmen. Wichita State (35-1) matched Kentucky’s superior size with its hustle and 31 points from senior Cleanthony Early and Baker’s 20. In the end, Kentucky’s NBA talent, underwhelming enough to earn an eighth seed, continued its March revival. The Shockers came up one play short when Fred VanVleet’s 3-pointer thudded off the heel of the rim and bounced away.
The Wildcats play fourth-seeded Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday in Indianapolis. Andrew Harrison scored 20 points for Kentucky, which made 8 of 18 3-pointers and made Wichita State’s occasional uses of zone defense imprudent. Julius Randle added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Shockers joined Gonzaga (2013) and Pittsburgh (2011) as No. 1 seeds to lose in the third round in the past four seasons.
“I feel for their team and their coach,” Calipari said. “This was an Elite Eight game where the winner should have gone to the Final Four. That’s how good they are and how good we’re playing right now.”
Wichita State’s historic season started with many discussions of changes designed to free offensive players from physical defenses. The Shockers took advantage most of the season, driving and drawing fouls to pile up points against overmatched opponents. Concern about the rule changes faded away. On Sunday, the play of the year in college basketball — head down, headed to the basket — worked against the Shockers.
Kentucky made 15 of 19 free throws in the second half and 16 of 22 for the game. It scored 11 of its final 16 points from the line and no Wildcat other than James Young made a basket in the final five minutes. The Shockers led 69-64, but the Wildcats cut that lead to one point with four free throws.
“In the end, they just basically lowered their head,” Marshall said. “It seemed they were just driving it and we were having too much body contact. And for the first time this year it seemed like the rules, the new rules, worked against us as opposed to in our favor.”
Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison made a free throw and missed one with seven seconds remaining to give the Wildcats a 78-76 lead. The Shockers rushed the ball the half-court and called timeout. Tekele Cotton inbounded to VanVleet near the top of the key. He looked quickly to the wing, found no one open, and dribbled away from a defender for a long 3. The Wildcats, able to switch defenders because of their length and athletic ability, cover up more shooters than most teams.
“We had three options on that play,” Marshall said. “We had Cle as an option, we had Ron as an option, and they took both of those away.”
VanVleet, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, is a great third option.
“He had a good look,” teammate Tekele Cotton said. “It just didn’t go in.”
The Shockers missed an earlier chance to knock out the Wildcats. Early made a 3 on the first play of the second half to give Wichita State a 40-31 lead. Randle, one of college basketball’s most-hyped freshmen and a 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward, took care of that deficit with his physical strength.
He rebounded a miss and dunked. After Aaron Harrison’s three, Randle rebounded a teammate’s miss and then his own before recording a three-point play that cut WSU’s lead to 40-39.
One minute later, VanVleet picked up his third foul and that play affected the rest of the game. The Wildcats drove at him, forcing Marshall to sub him out on defense. VanVleet played 16 minutes in the second half and didn’t score. He picked up one foul charging, a rare play for him. Another, he said, was given to him when another Shocker committed the foul.
VanVleet got his fourth foul with 4:52 remaining.
“I picked up some cheap ones early on,” he said. “It is just hard to play like that coming down the stretch. They realize I have four fouls as well, so they were just trying to attack me and get me out of the game.”
Early’s 21 second-half points put the Shockers in position to advance to the Sweet 16 and back up last season’s Final Four berth with another long stay. He beat Wildcat defenders down court for dunks and layups. He made three-pointers — 4 of 6 — and Kentucky had no player who could guard him.
Wichita State took the 69-64 lead on a 9-4 run in which Early made two threes.
The Wildcats scored their next four points at the foul line. They took a 70-69 lead on James Young’s basket. Early responded with a long jumper, giving him 29 points, to restore a one-point lead. Young came through again, making a three over the WSU zone for a 73-71 lead.
“It was supposed to be a drive for (Andrew Harrison), but then I guess the defender stopped him a little bit, so he gave the extra pass,” Young said.
His offensive rebound, after Baker missed a guarded three, led to two free throws with nine seconds to play to bring Wichita State within 77-76.
The Shockers didn’t score again. For the first time in 36 games, they didn’t answer, couldn’t come up with the big play. The first 35 provided many memories and book full of history. The way No. 36 ended won’t diminish this team’s legacy.