Atlanta Gregg Marshall called Saturday night’s basketball game against Louisville the most important he’d ever coached, and quite possibly the most important game Wichita State had ever played.
If not for the final 10 minutes, there would have been a more important one Monday night.
The plucky underdogs from the Missouri Valley Conference watched a 12-point lead slip away, and the mighty Cardinals showed their championship mettle down the stretch, beating Wichita State, 72-68, and preventing the ninth-seeded Shockers from playing for their first national title.
When the game clock struck zero, Marshall stoically shook hands with Louisville coach Rick Pitino, and then retreated to the postgame news conference, where his voice was clearly strained.
“There’s such a group in that locker room you grow to love,” Marshall said quietly. “They’re fun to coach, they’re great character kids, they’re tough as nails. But we didn’t say, ‘Bye,’ and we didn’t say, ‘This is it.’ This is just the beginning, just the beginning for us.”
Nobody gave the Shockers much of a chance to make it to Atlanta, but they kept proving folks wrong, beating No. 1 Gonzaga and second-seeded Ohio State along the way.
And in their first Final Four since 1965, they had the Cardinals on the ropes.
They led 26-25 at halftime and slowly drew away in the second half, scoring on nine of their first 11 possessions. Tekele Cotton’s basket with 14:16 left gave Wichita State a 43-32 lead and forced Pitino signal to call for a timeout.
But after going more than 25 minutes without a turnover, they started to mount against the Cardinals’ frustrating full-court press. The missed shots, each one sounding like a cannon blast as it clanked off the rim, became more numerous as Wichita State’s legs started to tire.
“Down the stretch, we were just loose with the ball,” said primary ball-handler Malcolm Armstead, who was mired in foul trouble. “We just didn’t take care of it, pretty much.”
The Cardinals will face Michigan for the national title Monday night after the Wolverines beat Syracuse 61-56 in the other semifinal.
Cleanthony Early had 24 points and 10 rebounds for the Shockers, including six straight in the final 2 minutes, as they tried to hang tough with the Big East champions.
It just wasn’t quite enough.
Carl Hall, whose nose was bloodied early in the game, added 13 points for Wichita State, and Ron Baker finished with 11 — though it will almost certainly be his inability to wrestle loose a jump ball, trailing by three with eight seconds left, that will stick out in the freshman’s mind.
Louisville got possession, and Russ Smith’s free throw put the game out of reach.
Still, with its eclectic hodge-podge of players, Wichita State (30-9) managed to eclipse its season record for wins on the way to becoming the first team from the Missouri Valley Conference to reach the Final Four since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979.
The Shockers also energized the state of Kansas with an improbable run — its last team left standing after Kansas and Kansas State were ousted earlier in the tournament.
“Last year, we played the No. 1 RPI schedule in the nation, and this year we played a top-five schedule, and I don’t think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State,” Pitino said. “It’s tough for Wichita State to lose this game, because they played great.”
Better than anybody could have expected at the start of the season.
The Shockers lost all five starters from a team that was a No. 5 seed in the tournament last year, along with them most of their scoring and a whole lot of their toughness. But a most bizarre mixture of players filled the void, someone always coming through when times were tough.
There was Early, the overlooked junior college star who finally got his shot on basketball’s biggest stage. And Armstead, who transferred from Oregon and had to pay his own way last season while redshirting, making ends meet by working at an auto dealership.
There was Hall, who once worked at a lighting factory not far from the site of the Final Four and then overcame a heart condition that causes irregular beats to become the soul of the team.
All of them took the small school on the prairie on an incredible ride.