LOS ANGELES — Wichita State went from sweet to elite, beating La Salle 72-58 on Thursday night to reach the final eight of the NCAA tournament for the first time in 32 years.
Malcolm Armstead scored 18 points, Carl Hall added 16 points and freshman Ron Baker 13 for the ninth-seeded Shockers, who proved their upset of No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the third round was no fluke. They never trailed in this matchup of small schools whose past NCAA tourney success was long buried in the history books.
The Shockers advanced to Saturday’s West Regional final against No. 2 seed Ohio State, a 73-70 winner over Arizona in the first semifinal at Staples Center. Their yellow-clad fans, several waving handmade signs, made up nearly all of the smaller crowd that stuck around to see the end.
Wichita State (29-8) tied the school’s 2010-11 team for most victories. That group won the NIT title. These Shockers have designs on next matching what the 1965 team did — reaching the Final Four.
La Salle (24-10) briefly fought back in the second half — getting within 11 points — but the Shockers made sure the history of No. 13 seeds never making the final eight remained intact.
The Shockers beat Kansas by two points to get to the final eight in 1981. They didn’t need to take down a giant this time, just a 6,500-student school from Philadelphia that scrapped its way 2,754 miles from an at-large berth in Dayton, Ohio, to Los Angeles.
Jerrell Wright and Tyrone Garland led the Explorers with 16 points each. Ramon Galloway, who averages a team-leading 17.4 points, was held to 11 for a program that won the 1954 NCAA championship and reached the 1955 national title game.
Wichita State dominated inside, owning a 47-29 rebounding edge and outscoring La Salle 40-26 in the paint, helped by Hall, who had 14 points in the first half.
The Shockers limited La Salle to 36 percent shooting — the same as Gonzaga shot in its second-round loss.
Hall sat down with his third foul while La Salle was busy whittling its deficit to 11 points by attacking the rim. But the Explorers never got within single digits, and Armstead scored nine straight points to push Wichita State’s lead to 62-47. Another 6-0 spurt, capped by Cleanthony Early’s dunk, made it 68-48.
The Shockers hit two straight 3-pointers to open the second half and push their lead to 22 points.
La Salle turned aggressive, answering with a 10-0 run to close to 44-32, with Wright scoring the first seven points and Galloway making a 3-pointer.
The Explorers got shocked to start the game, with Wichita State outscoring them 14-2. The Shockers ended the half on a 9-1 run, including five by Baker, to lead 38-22 at the break. La Salle was held to 27 percent shooting, while Wichita State shot 53 percent and dominated the paint, 24-10.
Hall’s teammates repeatedly found him down on the block and he muscled in layups over the smaller Explorers.
Galloway missed his first six shots. His finally made a 3-pointer that drew the Explorers within eight, but Wichita State quickly restored its lead to double digits.
Although 6-foot-11 center Steve Zack was cleared to play, he didn’t and the Explorers missed his added height and inside presence. Zack had been out the previous six games with a sprained foot.