Louisville Earns Berth in Finals
ATLANTA – Wichita State did everything right for nearly 30 minutes, building a second-half lead and putting itself in position to become the lowest-seeded team ever to play for a national title.
Over the final 10 minutes, mighty Louisville started to play like Louisville, and the ninth-seeded Shockers’ feel-good story started to slowly slip away.
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 canon blast as it clanked off the rim, became more numerous for Wichita State, and a jump ball with eight seconds left and the Shockers trailing by three kept them from having a chance at forcing overtime.
Instead, Russ Smith went back to the free-throw line and made the only foul shot he needed, and Louisville hung on for a 72-68 victory Saturday night that sent the Shockers home from their first Final Four trip since 1965 with a bitter taste after an otherwise sweet ride.
Cleanthony Early had 24 points and 10 rebounds for the Shockers, including six straight in the final 2 minutes, as they tried to hung tough with the Big East champions.
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 the ball loose from that jump ball in the closing seconds that will stick out in the freshman’s mind.
Wichita State (30-9) had already eclipsed the season record for victories on its way to becoming the first team from the Missouri Valley Conference to reach the Final Four since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979.
Along the way, the Shockers knocked off top-seeded Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Ohio State with a blend of gritty toughness and never-say-never attitude embodied by their coach, Gregg Marshall.
It was that toughness that allowed the Shockers to stay close in the first half, when shots weren’t falling for either team, and forge a 26-25 lead by the break.
They started to slowly draw away early in the second half, scoring on nine of their first 11 possessions, and Tekele Cotton’s basket with 14:16 left gave Wichita State a 43-32 lead and made Louisville coach Rick Pitino signal to the officials for a timeout.
The lead grew to 12 points on a 3-pointer by Early, but the Shockers started to run into foul trouble – top ball-handler Malcolm Armstead spent long stretches of the second half on the bench – and that allowed Louisville to swiftly and efficiently cut into the lead.
The Cardinals finally pulled ahead on a basket by Smith with 4:40 left, and then showed the kind of tournament-tested moxie it takes to win in March in the closing minutes.
In doing so, they denied the plucky Shockers a chance at their first national championship.