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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Wichita State rolls into Final Four

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— Cleanthony Early kept stealing glances down at the hat in his hands while he waited for his turn to climb the stepladder, scissors in hand. The Wichita State forward seemed stunned at the words embroidered on his brand new ballcap: “Final Four Atlanta.”

“It’s crazy. I still can’t believe we’re here,” Early said. “You try to expect it, but you expect a lot of things that don’t happen. This really happened.”

Believe it. Wichita State is going to Atlanta, and these Shockers are no longer a surprise after the way the tenacious ninth seeds held off mighty Ohio State, 70-66, in the West Regional final.

Malcolm Armstead scored 14 points, Fred Van Vleet bounced in a big basket with one minute left, and Wichita State earned its first trip to the Final Four since 1965 with a 70-66 victory over the Buckeyes on Saturday.

Van Vleet scored 12 points as the Shockers (30-8) followed up last week’s win over top-ranked Gonzaga with a nail-biting victory over the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-8), whose 11-game winning streak ended one short of their second straight Final Four. Wichita State’s 20-point lead in the second half dwindled to three in the final minutes, but several Shockers stepped up with big plays to stop the surge, heeding coach Gregg Marshall’s halftime command to “play angry.”

All that anger turned into a joyous postgame party at midcourt, even though the Shockers realize they’ve got more work to do.

Wichita State is just the fifth team seeded ninth or higher to reach the Final Four since seeding began in 1979, but the second in three years following 11th-seeded VCU’s improbable run in 2011. The Shockers’ celebration was wild, if a bit disbelieving, in front of several thousand roaring fans.

“Last year we were watching all this on television,” said Early, who scored 12 points despite spraining his ankle in the second half. “Now I’m looking at a hat that says ‘Final Four Atlanta’ with my team on it. ... It feels good, and it feels even better that I could experience it with these guys who had to struggle so hard to get here.”

Wichita State roared to a 20-point lead with 11 minutes to play after Ohio State played an awful first half, but LaQuinton Ross scored 15 of his 19 points after halftime, leading a ferocious rally that got the Buckeyes within three points in the final minutes.

Tekele Cotton hit a clutch three-pointer for Wichita State with 2:20 left and grabbed a key offensive rebound moments later, allowing VanVleet to score on a shot that bounced all over the rim before dropping. Ron Baker and Cotton hit last-minute free throws to secure the second Final Four trip in Wichita State’s history and a school-record 30th win.

“We’re happy, but I’m still shocked,” said Carl Hall, the glasses-wearing big man who scored eight points and led the Shockers’ strong defensive effort. “We’ve got a team full of fighters. I brought them all together near the end and said, ‘No matter what happens, I love y’all.’ We had to fight so hard. We’ve got each other’s backs, and it’s hard to beat a team that’s got five guys who work together like us.”

Deshaun Thomas scored 21 points after missing nine of his first 12 shots for Ohio State, which made just 24 percent of its first-half shots. Aaron Craft scored nine points on 2-for-12 shooting against Armstead and a host of defenders for the Buckeyes, who dug a hole too deep to escape with their second-half rally.

“The way we shot coming into the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, everything was falling,” Thomas said. “Today, it just wasn’t our night. Nothing was falling. We had great looks, some of them, but they just weren’t falling.”

Yet after two weeks of upsets in the wild West bracket, underdog Wichita State seemed an appropriate pick to cut down Staples Center’s nets. The Shockers’ well-balanced roster managed built that enormous lead with the same consummate team play that they’ve shown throughout the tournament.

The Shockers are also the kings of Kansas, reaching the national semifinals after the powerful Jayhawks and Kansas State both went down.

Two sections packed with cheering Shockers fans provided all the encouragement necessary for a team that didn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and was thought to be a bubble team for an NCAA berth. Now, Wichita State is the MVC’s first Final Four team since Larry Bird led Indiana State to the title game in 1979.

Another giant awaits the Shockers in Atlanta next weekend: They’ll face the winner of today’s Midwest Regional final between Duke and Louisville.

“We’re all new to this, but I think we’re ready for this,” Early said. “We’re going to prepare ourselves, and this game was pretty good preparation. We started at the bottom, and we’ve been working our way up.”

Seven seasons after underdog George Mason crashed the Final Four and underlined college basketball’s growing parity, the Shockers are the latest smallish school to get on a big roll in the tournament. Butler made the national championship game in 2010 and 2011, and the Bulldogs were joined by that VCU team in the Final Four two years ago.

This year’s tournament included stunning wins by Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle and Harvard, but nobody kept it going longer than Wichita State.

Although the Shockers have a beautiful home arena and robust support from fans and donors in Kansas’ largest city, Marshall acknowledged that Wichita State’s athletic budget is a fraction of what a BCS school can spend. He hasn’t let it slow the Shockers, who made the NCAA Tournament last year only to lose to 12th-seeded VCU in the first round.

After the Shockers easily beat La Salle two days ago to reach their first regional final since 1981, Marshall’s pregame speech to the Shockers on Saturday finished with talk of cutting down the nets at Staples Center before getting on that plane back to Kansas, saying Wichita State didn’t have to play “a perfect game” to beat mighty Ohio State.

“The Mecca awaits in Atlanta,” he said.

Marshall was right, but he couldn’t have anticipated just how imperfect Ohio State would be.

The postseason-tested Buckeyes appeared calm and confident during warmups in front of their healthy fan contingent, yet they proceeded to play the first half just like NCAA newbies.

They missed their first seven shots after the opening tip in a string capped by an airballed three-pointer from Thomas, who missed his first five overall. The junior star was labeled “a bad-shot taker and a bad-shot maker” by Marshall on Friday, but he only lived up to the first part of that billing while going 4-for-13 in the first half.

Early hit two three-pointers in the opening minutes, and the Shockers stretched their lead to 13 points shortly before halftime.

“You’ve got to give them credit,” Craft said. “They really came out firing and we really didn’t regain our footing until it was too late.”

Hall went to the locker room after drawing a charge from Thomas early in the second half, holding the back of his head after Thomas’ elbow clipped him on the jaw. Hall found his glasses and got back in the game 66 seconds later.

Wichita State gradually stretched its lead early in the second half, with Early’s layup putting the Shockers up 53-33 with 12:09 to play.

Ross desperately tried to rally the Buckeyes, scoring eight consecutive points and leading a 23-6 run midway through the second half. Ohio State went into a full-court inbounds defense, and Shannon Scott’s free throws with 2:49 left cut the lead to 62-59 — but Ohio State couldn’t get any closer.

Comments

Kip_McSmithers 8 years, 10 months ago

I'm pulling for the Shockers. Hopefully they can continue to play well.

JayHok 8 years, 10 months ago

Congratulations Shockers! Pretty cool midmajor 9 seed story. Very reminiscent of George Mason's run a few years ago.

hawkmama 8 years, 10 months ago

The Shockers are the epitome of teamwork and endurance. Very fun team to watch and they can ignite their roundhouse arena into a place that rivals AFH. No ego issues, no highly recruited basketball stars, no McDonald's All-Americans. And Gregg Marshall??? If he's not national coach of the year, there's a problem somewhere.

BigDBigJayhawk 8 years, 10 months ago

Who cares?!?! They have their own board!!! I don't need to come to KUsports.com to read about WSU.

gchawk 8 years, 10 months ago

I know the loss from yesterday stills hurts, but like KIP_McSmithers, I'm pulling for them too, so I guess you could count me in as one that cares. Call me simple, but I just love basketball, so I like to know as much as possible, especially about teams in our State or in our conference.

BigDBigJayhawk 8 years, 10 months ago

Heck yes it does. I was at the game and I still have ringing in my ears from the dbag Mich fan sitting next to me.

Let's see if you're all saying "go Shockers" when the next Perry Ellis or CF stays home. With all due respect, they're a broke commuter school in one of the worst towns in America, BUT they're building just enough of a name they could snag a player or two from KU in the future.

Regardless, on to 2013-2014 season. Hope the Shockers get beat by 50.

90sHawk 8 years, 10 months ago

Your ripping on Wichita and WSU is pathetic, and you sound like an insecure a-hole talking about losing Wichita recruits to them. No one is asking you to support them, but how about trying to shut the hell up with your bashing of WSU. What, did they eat your first born or something?

BigDBigJayhawk 8 years, 10 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

jayhawkinATL 8 years, 10 months ago

Why even be afraid that kids will choose to stay and play in Wichita??? Welcome the challenge!!!

BigDBigJayhawk 8 years, 10 months ago

I will be the first person to say that I'm glad HCBS got his mojo back and signed a killer class, but let's be honest, recruiting has been a little ugly the past few years. I do not want to get into a recruiting argument, but just saying. Don't need any more "challenges". Anyways, tired of talking about WSU. I'm not going to lie, I'm pulling for L'ville, but I get why some of you would be pulling for the home state team. I just view it differently.

Mike Riches 8 years, 10 months ago

It is interesting that the state of Kansas got three teams in the NCAA tournament (and two in the Sweet 16) while the state where I live (Texas) got 0...

79ictjhawk 8 years, 10 months ago

Relax BigD the Shockers will never have the program we have. They're having a rare breakthrough season - let them enjoy it. Some Wichita recruits may choose to stay but some already have - we'll get more than our share. Go Shocks!

Scott Bonnet 8 years, 10 months ago

Ad hominem attacks on other schools and Kansas communities is really bush league. Act like a Jayhawk fan. Champions don't hate on other teams success.

BigDBigJayhawk 8 years, 10 months ago

Sorry dude, your opinion is no better than mine. Don't need a self righteousness correction from you or anyone else. I'm free to cheer for or against whomever I want. It's not like I'm trolling on the Shocker board.

Frankly I've been more respective of your opinions to support them (which I find crazy) than many of you have been for my opposition. I'm not going to give them a condescending pat on the head and I frankly don't care about the economics of Wichita. If you chose to call Wichita home, deal with it.

Go L'ville!

ShockerFanForLife 8 years, 9 months ago

You are an extremely small and obviously angry person, and if a Shocker fan replied to a KU article about their success, I would feel the same way. My parents hated KU and always cheered against them, no matter who they played. Thank God I grew up and learned to make my own decisions and I cheer for all the state teams all the time. And I understand why KU & K-State do not play the Shockers. I wanted K-State to win, so we might have a chance to play them in the Sweet Sixteen, and I cheered big time for KU to beat Michigan....because just maybe we could meet in the Championship game. You are a poor excuse of a fan.

MinnesotaJay 8 years, 10 months ago

They almost let it slip away, but they didn't (unike...uh...never mind). Ypu've got to be impressed. Go, Shockers!

Dirk Medema 8 years, 10 months ago

They had a 3ptr that bounced around and in, while we had one that rolled around and out.

It's why Coach is so passionate about every possession of every game mattering. Ultimately, it could be the difference in a NC or not.

texashawk10 8 years, 10 months ago

I'll be cheering on WSU against Louisville next Saturday. I didn't grow up in Kansas and only lived in the state while I was attending KU so I don't have the disdain for WSU that some people here have. I'm not trying to tell those people to not like WSU because their disdain is based on their experiences with WSU fans. I certainly have teams I dislike down here in Texas because of those same reasons so I get why some people don't like WSU. I just don't share that dislike of the Shockers so I will be cheering for WSU.

GortHawker 8 years, 10 months ago

All Gort has left to root for are the Shockers, Go Shockers !

Chris Shaw 8 years, 10 months ago

The Wichita State Shockers are the only reason why I watched basketball yesterday. I didn't watch the cuse game yesterday, the michigan game today, or the Duke game today. I will watch the Final 4 and I will be hoping somebody other than Syracuse wins it.

Going to be sick to my stomach if Michigan cuts down the nets though. Go Shock the world, Wichita State!

Mike Riches 8 years, 10 months ago

You will be sick to your stomach if you go back and watch the Duke/Louisville game when Kevin Ware broke his leg!

Chris Shaw 8 years, 10 months ago

The only thing I hope Wichita State University understands is how much of Jayhawk nation is supporting them. I hope Gregg Marshall realizes this as well!

90sHawk 8 years, 10 months ago

This Jayhawk is supporting the Shockers. Hope they continue the ride there on and enjoy every minute of it.

snewell636 8 years, 10 months ago

As one who grew up watching WSU with Carr and Levingston in the early 1980's as well as the X Man, I have always had a place for the Shockers. While I sick on want happened to KU, I am excited for WSU.

Unlike the state the I now leave in, the state of Kansas can claim that all of it's D1 teams have made the MensFinal Four.

utahjayhawk 8 years, 10 months ago

Keep on shockin', Shockers! A lot of us Jayhawks are pulling for you.

JayHok 8 years, 10 months ago

A note to all of the Shocker fans. KU supports you and roots for you. What we don't like is being told by you or the state that we HAVE to play somebody. Imagine being forced to play someone whether it be Duke or Akron against your own will. It's a matter of principle. Other than that go Shockers!

Larry Smith 8 years, 10 months ago

It's an AP story, on a newspapers site. Get over it, or just don't click on it.

actorman 8 years, 9 months ago

What the hell else are they going to write about now?

Brak 8 years, 10 months ago

You take the time to comment on how pointless it is for KUSports to write an article not about KU sports, but then go on to comment about a kid that plays for another team getting hurt and how you hope they win it all.

Scott Bonnet 8 years, 10 months ago

This is a "newspaper." Shockers in the Final Four is news. Don't want to read about, then don't.

woodscolt 8 years, 9 months ago

It took several days for the ljw to post an article about WSU going to the final four and then it was off the AP wire so they didn't have to actually claim the article. I would have rather it been KU but give the Shockers enough respect to at least acknowledge they accomplished a pretty remarkable feat.Even though I am a WSU alum, I didn't give them much chance of getting past Pittsburgh.

dhinkansas 8 years, 10 months ago

The comments about Friday's game amaze me...fire Self, the players sucked blah blah blah. They did have a 31-6 season and I'm sick of the over analysis of it. They didn't make some plays at the end, Michigan did and it's now in the books. KU basketball is always a fun ride.

nuleafjhawk 8 years, 9 months ago

I appreciate your enthusiasm, but for me there is nothing fun about blowing a 14 point lead late in the game. And an eight point lead in the last 1:22. It goes to show how little I know about basketball - my wife saw that KU was paddling furiously to keep their heads above water towards the end of the game and said " KU had better be careful or they're going to lose this game." I told her it was IMPOSSIBLE for a KU team to blow an eight point lead with 1:22 left. IMPOSSIBLE.

Guess I was wrong.

actorman 8 years, 9 months ago

Nuleaf, I'm surprised that any fan who's watched KU for more than a few years would not believe they were fully capable of blowing an 8-point lead in the last 1:22.

For a number of years now, I've been having an ongoing argument with my friend, where I say that there's no team in sports that has had as many heartbreaking losses as KU and he says I'm just biased. This just adds to KU being at the top of that ignominious list.

nuleafjhawk 8 years, 9 months ago

lol - you're right. I knew it could happen, I just didn't want to believe it. The past few years, I feel better when we're behind - we seem to play harder. The bigger lead we have, the more apt we are to play not to lose and then do just that. Or at least let the lead dwindle to a point or two.

thmdmph 8 years, 10 months ago

I can't help but imagine that had KU not have a complete let down at the end of the sweet 16 game, we could have a really good shot at the championship this year, now that Louisville is not full force.

As I was watching WSU's game, I was on the verge of breakdown as OSU was making the comeback. Thank God no silly turnovers after turnovers in the last minutes of the game.

woodscolt 8 years, 9 months ago

Yep, mph, the shockers had some turnovers late and some bad calls all along the way but they made plays when they had to. Hope they stay in the game with Louisville long enough to make some late plays and win but Lousville is so capable of putting a 15 or 20 point run together in a few minutes and ending the game right there. That is what KU lacked against Michigan. They had chances to put it our of reach and just couldn't make the plays. That 10 sec violation was the fastest 10 second call I have ever seen. I'd say 7 seconds at the most and that play alone could have won the game for us. Oh well.

Brad Farha 8 years, 9 months ago

Have to disagree with the comment on the 10 second violation. It's not like the ref counted to 10 while the shot clock still said 28. The shot clock was at 24 and Elijah had not crossed mid court yet. It's a painful call, but it was a fair call.

ShockerFanForLife 8 years, 9 months ago

@ BigDBigJayhawk - You are an extremely small and obviously angry person, and if a Shocker fan replied to a KU article about their success, I would feel the same way. My parents hated KU and always cheered against them, no matter who they played. Thank God I grew up and learned to make my own decisions and I cheer for all the state teams all the time. And I understand why KU & K-State do not play the Shockers. I wanted K-State to win, so we might have a chance to play them in the Sweet Sixteen, and I cheered big time for KU to beat Michigan....because just maybe we could meet in the Championship game. You are a poor excuse of a fan.

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