ATLANTA Maybe all Wichita State needed was one shot.
Maybe if that jump ball hadn’t been called with six seconds remaining, the Shockers would have found a hero to make a three-pointer and send its national semifinal game against Louisville on Saturday into overtime.
“It would have been nice to have gotten a shot,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
Instead, the possession arrow went right through Wichita State’s heart.
Louisville got the ball out of bounds, made a free-throw to get its lead to four, and beat a Wichita State team that gave its fans and its city a century’s worth of memories in three weeks.
The jump ball call will be debated. It happened after Luke Hancock made the front end of a one-and-one for a three-point Louisville lead, then missed the second.
The ball bounced hard off the rim and WSU’s Ron Baker made the grab. But he was off balance, so he had to dribble so as not to travel. With the ball at Baker’s waist level, Hancock reached in and, the officials ruled, had the tie up long enough.
Every eye in the massive Georgia Dome shot toward the possession arrow. Louisville exhaled when it saw where it was pointed; Wichita State cringed.
The Shockers played the first 27 minutes like a national champion. Cleanthony Early’s three-pointer with 13:41 to play put them up by 12. By 12, mind you, over the tournament’s top seed, a Cardinals team that had won 14 straight and toyed with some of the most dangerous teams in college basketball.
Where did it go wrong for the Shockers?
It started when they allowed Louisville junior Tim Henderson, whose parents probably passed out when he went into the game because of how little he’s played this season, made back-to-back three-pointers to cut that 12-point lead in half.
It was a shock to WSU’s system to see Henderson, who played a season-high 10 minutes, act as Louisville’s defibrillator.
From that point, there was no more running and hiding from the Cardinals. The soft butter pressure defense the Cardinals had been employing became a brick wall. During a seven-possession stretch, Wichita State committed five turnovers, nearly half of what the Shockers had in the game.
WSU’s lead continued to melt. Louisville, as most expected, won 72-68.
And the Shockers lost the kind of game that will cause Marshall, his assistants and the team’s players many sleepless nights.
They’ll pick this one apart, looking for reasons, searching for a turning point.
“This may be the most important basketball game that I’ll ever coach,” Marshall said.
As his players tried to answer questions on the podium after the game, Marshall stared straight ahead. It was a stark contrast to the post-game interview session after the Shockers knocked off Ohio State last Saturday to reach their first Final Four in 48 years.
As players talked then, Marshall was checking his phone for the 500 or so congratulatory text messages he was getting, one after another.
Saturday, though, he looked ashen. The suddenness of the craziest and best ride in the history of Shocker basketball being over was jolting, almost unbearable. Even against Louisville, the team most are picking to win the national championship.
It’s nice that legendary Cardinals coach Rick Pitino has been leading the cheers for Shocker basketball all week. He continued after Saturday’s game.
“Last year we played the No. 1 RPI schedule in the nation and this year we played a top-five schedule,” Pitino said. “I don’t think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State. They are great.”
Pitino isn’t trying to win friends when he says things like that.
The Shockers can be great. At times Saturday they were great. But they weren’t great in the final 13 minutes, when they most needed to be.
WSU outscored Louisville 17-7 to start the second half. When they were up 12, it was difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Cardinals could come back.
And then Henderson, a junior who had played a grand total of 208 minutes in his Louisville career, made two huge shots from the corner. The same Henderson who made a mop-up three-pointer to close out an 85-63 Elite Eight win over Duke last week.
That would have been a good enough story to tell his grandchildren someday. But he topped it big-time against Wichita State.
Henderson’s pair of treys served as a wake-up call for the Cardinals and put doubt in the minds of the Shockers. Things had been going so swimmingly, and then a kid whose father is a former Louisville swimmer makes the 10th and 11th three-pointers of his career.
Henderson’s shot were the beginning of a 37-21 Louisville barrage in the final 13 minutes. The Cardinals had scored 35 in the first 27.
So, yes, getting the ball for one final shot would have been nice. And the Shockers might have done something historic with that possession. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that Wichita State could have gone farther in this tournament. They could have been playing for a championship Monday night, with apologies to no one.
What an incredible season. It ended in a difficult way, but the Shockers will pick up these pieces. Marshall, so deflated by the loss, also talked about how excited he is about the future.
There are no guarantees WSU will be on this stage again. It’s such a hard feat to accomplish. But the Shockers are in position to be good year after year.
Cleanthony Early, who looked like a future NBA player with his 24 points and 10 rebounds against Louisville, will be back next season. So will Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton, Fred VanVleet and others.
“This is just a beginning,” Marshall said.
But the end still hurts.