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 in the West Regional final.
Malcolm Armstead scored 14 points, Fred Van Vleet bounced in a big basket with 1 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.
Former Whitefield Academy standout Tekele Cotton hit a clutch 3-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 Sunday’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 3-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 3-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.