PORTLAND, Ore. — There will be a lot of time to second-guess Wichita State’s performance in its second-round NCAA Tournament loss to VCU on Thursday night at the Rose Garden. A lot of time to hold people accountable and to debate why one of the best Shocker teams ever, one that the college basketball expert for none other than Sports Illustrated picked to reach the Final Four, was bounced out by a No. 12 seed, 62-59.
Because time is all the Shockers have now. Their dreams — their expectations, really — have been extinguished and all that was left were swollen eyes and bruised egos. Wichita State fought, finally, with a furious second-half comeback that looked like it might get the Shockers past this treacherous VCU challenge.
But at the end, in the final 12 seconds, the Shockers had nothing. Their attempt to find a three-point shot against the Rams’ stifling defense resulted in a step-back — and step-back again just to get both big feet behind the arc — prayer from 7-foot senior center Garrett Stutz.
Had it gone in — and it looked like it might after the ball left his hands — Stutz would have been able to put the worst game of his marvelous season behind him. But it didn’t and Stutz’s awful night will haunt him forever.
Stutz blamed himself for the defeat. His 2-of-11 shooting night, including a point-blank miss during the game’s final stretch, did stand out. But the Shockers weren’t the Shockers, at least not for the longest time.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall was worried about his team re-discovering its swagger following a semifinal loss to Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament almost two weeks ago, and his concern turned out to be warranted.
It was a listless team that hit the floor for Thursday’s game against a VCU team that preys on the weak. It wasn’t until about six minutes had gone by in the second half that Wichita State found its gear. The Shockers melted a 13-point VCU lead to one and eventually took a 59-57 lead on Toure Murry’s three-point basket with two minutes left.
It turned out to be the final basket of Murry’s career and Wichita State’s season. The final five points belonged to VCU on a Bradford Burgess three-pointer and a runner in the lane by Darius Theus with 19 seconds to play that put the Rams on top by three points.
Nineteen seconds later, Wichita State’s season was over. Just like that. It’s the cruelty that comes for all but one team in an NCAA Tournament, especially for seniors. And the Shockers have five of them.
Even so, WSU didn’t play like a veteran team early. Knowing what they would be facing, intense full-court pressure, the Shockers were usually able to get past the first wave. But VCU doesn’t let up in the half-court and WSU’s offensive possessions rarely looked comfortable until Marshall decided to fight fire with fire in the second half.
When the Shockers started pressing, too, and then dropped back into a matchup zone, it was the Rams who looked dizzy.
“Maybe I should have done it earlier,’’ said Marshall, joining the second-guess club.
Maybe so, but the element of surprise was a big reason for the comeback. And after Murry’s go-ahead jumper, it was difficult to imagine anything but a Shocker win.
But a VCU team on the ropes didn’t crumble. When the Rams were announced as WSU’s opponent on Selection Sunday, everybody who follows basketball knew this was going to be a war. The No. 12 seed assigned to VCU meant nothing.
It’s a different Rams team than the Final Four team, which advanced from one of those First Four games all the way to the Final Four. This team relies on defensive pressure and the wiles of its coach, Shaka Smart.
VCU didn’t do anything spectacular. But the Rams kept the Shockers from finding easy shots; WSU made only 38.7 percent of its field-goal attempts. Impressively, VCU applied its defensive pressure while being called for only 12 fouls. It’s a finely-tuned guarding machine and the Shockers took too long to adapt.
How often do teams seeded seven spots above an opponent in the NCAA Tournament have to adapt? It’s supposed to be the other way around.
Not this time, though.
Marshall will replay this game in his mind on a continuous loop for months. Every Shocker player will wonder about a missed shot or a bad pass or defensive lapse. These opportunities come so rarely for most coaches and most players. WSU’s seniors had built progressively toward this moment, only to come up short with a sub-par performance.
As Stutz sat in the corner of the locker room, his eyes red from sobbing, it was obvious he was absorbing the brunt of the blame he thinks he deserves.
It was difficult to see and his emotions are at once understandable and unwarranted.
Stutz didn’t lose this game. Losing required a team effort.
So second-guess if you feel the need. Point your finger if you must. Or accept that it wasn’t meant to be. It’s up to you.