LOS ANGELES — Wichita State is headed to the Final Four, and these Shockers should be no surprise to anybody.
Not after the way they 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 ninth-seeded 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 game short of their second consecutive Final Four.
Wichita State is just the fifth team seeded ninth or higher to reach the Final Four since 1979, but the second in three years following 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth’s unlikely run in 2011.
“Last year we were watching all this on television,” said Cleanthony Early, who scored 12 points. “Now I’m looking at a hat that says ‘Final Four Atlanta’ with my team on it. It’s crazy. I still can’t believe we’re here. You try to expect it, but you expect a lot of things that don’t happen. This really happened.”
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.
But after Tekele Cotton hit a 3-pointer with 2:20 left, VanVleet scored 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.
The Shockers are also the kings of Kansas, reaching the national semifinals after the powerful Jayhawks and Kansas State both went down.
“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 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.”
But 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.
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, coach Gregg 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.
The 50-year-old Marshall, who says he’s “not a jumper” when it comes to job opportunities, spent nine seasons at Winthrop, making seven NCAA tournaments before moving to Wichita in 2007, where he rebuilt the Shockers into a Top 25 team last year – only to lose to 12th-seeded VCU in the first round of the 2012 tournament.
Wichita State made it this year as a bubble team after losing in the Missouri Valley Conference tourney, but the Shockers followed up an opening-round win over Pitt with an impressive victory over Gonzaga, the top seed in the West and the No. 1 team in the nation at the end of the regular season.
After the Shockers easily beat La Salle two days ago, Marshall’s pregame speech to the Shockers on Saturday finished with talk of cutting down the nets at Staples Centerbefore 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 and sending his protective goggles flying. 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 closer.