SALT LAKE CITY — Wichita State is leaving a trail of tears in the NCAA Tournament, headed to the Sweet 16 with a team thats nothing close to sweet.
This is a tough bunch, one that was able to come back from an eight-point deficit against the No. 1 team in the country, Gonzaga, and win 76-70 on Saturday night.
And after it ended, some of Gonzagas players cried, just as some of Pittsburghs players cried Thursday after the Panthers lost to WSU.
A group Shocker coach Gregg Marshall often calls the nicest guys hes ever coached has no conscience when it comes to playing basketball.
Toughness, senior guard Malcolm Armstead said. When we was down, we didnt give up. We kept pushing.
Sophomore guard Tekele Cotton offered his take: This is a team and weve been grinding from the start.
And senior Demetric Williams, sitting at his locker stall and shaking his head, had this: Its just guys being confident in themselves. It showed tonight with a bunch of guys stepping up and hitting big shots. Those shots they hit today, weve seen them hit in practice big time. We just fight through adversity.
Wichita State hadnt beaten a top-ranked team in 50 years, about the time Marshall was born.
This was to finally be Gonzagas year. Even after the Zags stumbled before finally beating Southern in Thursdays 1-16 West Regional game, most thought they would breathe fire Saturday.
And they did. This wasnt about Gonzaga laying an egg and if any of the national pundits try to make you believe it is theyre being dishonest.
This was about the Shockers. About a coach who was introduced earlier this week as Gregg Williams on a national talk show. About a town that was spelled Whitchita by more than one so-called college basketball expert on Twitter, where the Shockers were trending for a while. Trending on Twitter. Oh my, my.
The Shockers have been waiting a long, long time for a moment like this. Call them Cinderella if you want, but before you do remember how tough this bunch is. They might take you out back.
Wichita State got up 13 against Gonzaga in the first half. But foul trouble for Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall allowed Gonzaga to chip away and the Zags were within 36-31 at halftime.
The second half started terribly for the Shockers. Early picked up his third foul with 19:07 and went back to the bench. Hall followed just 1:07 later after getting his third. Gonzaga was up 49-41 with 11:56 and the fat cats from CBS were smoking cigars at the notion of the tournaments best story advancing.
Suddenly Wichita State is the best story.
Down is one thing. The Shockers never view themselves as out.
It was a Ron Baker three-pointer that pointed WSU in the right direction. Yes, Baker, who missed 21 games with a foot injury this season, an injury so frustrating that he would have chewed off his foot if he thought it would have helped him get back on the floor quicker.
Baker would make two more three-pointers. Early, who was awful in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament two weeks ago but sensational in Salt Lake, made one, too. Even Cotton, who has willed himself into being a shooting threat through hard work, hit a big three-pointer as the Shockers were fighting back.
The biggest three-pointer, though, the one that you 25-year-old Shocker fans will still be talking about in 50 years, was the one freshman point guard Fred VanVleet made with 1:28 left and the Shockers protecting a highly-precarious 67-65 lead.
VanVleet was boxed in. The shot clock was expiring. He couldnt find an open teammate. Some players might have curled up and asked for a blanket.
But VanVleet found the smallest of openings for a shot and fired away from beyond the arc. The ball went in the basket, giving the Shockers a five-point lead. He made two free throws with 39 seconds left to make it a seven-point advantage.
A freshman. Against Gonzaga. In the NCAA Tournament. For a trip to the Sweet 16.
Its fitting that the Shockers next stop is on this NCAA journey is Hollywood. OK, its technically Los Angeles, but somebody needs to get a soundstage ready.
When Gene Smithson came up with the MTXE (Mental Toughness Extra Effort) slogan in 1979, he must have been looking ahead 34 years.
Wichita State, a team with suspect long-range shooters, shot 50 percent against Gonzaga, which had allowed opponents to shoot only 38 percent.
Shooting is all confidence, said Armstead, who after two dynamic games in a row finally struggled with six points on 2-of-9 shooting. I told Baker at our shoot-around today that today he was gonna get money, he was gonna make shots. Without him and Tekele and Fred, we dont win this game.
What a game it was to win.
The Shockers went to a Sweet 16 in 2006 and that was really big. But its not like this.
You could make a case for this to be the biggest, right there with a win over Oklahoma State in Manhattan in 1965 that catapulted Wichita State to its only Final Four. It belongs right there with the Battle of New Orleans victory over Kansas in 1981 that sent the Shockers to the Elite Eight.
This is just what these players are, Marshall said. Theyre winners. They find a way. And it couldnt happen to a nicer group of young men.
Nice? What the Shockers did to Gonzaga wasnt nice. That was cold-blooded.