ST. LOUIS — Well, that was an unfamiliar feeling.
Wichita State fans arent accustomed to disappointment after a game. Its been almost a full year since they have spent any time with that particular emotion.
So as the final buzzer approached on Sunday and the Shockers trailed Kentucky by 2 points, anxiety-consumed fans fully expected the team to find a way to pull it out because thats just what the Shockers do.
When they didnt and the game ended with a 78-76 Kentucky victory, it was as though the 7,500 Shocker fans in Scottrade Center took a collective punch to the stomach. A hard one.
The buzzer sounded and people doubled over. Two women shared a long, quiet hug. Some fans fought tears. Then, when they saw team hero Ron Baker cover his face with his jersey as he exited the court, they quit fighting it.
Wiping her eyes, Sherl Weatherbee who, along with her husband, Tony, traveled to every Shocker game this year, home and away wondered whether the 2-point difference in the final score made the loss more or less painful.
On the one hand, the Shockers were so close. They could have had it. They should have had it.
On the other hand, the score proves to Shocker naysayers that the teams 35-0 start wasnt a fluke. And, by the way, 35-1 is nothing to be ashamed of.
Im really proud, Weatherbee said. In my eyes, theres still no better team than the Shockers.
The mood was much different at halftime.
The Shockers had gone to the locker room with a 6-point lead and a couple of impressive runs. Any fears fans had before the game that the Shockers might be shut down by the bigger, more athletic Wildcats had been erased by a Cleanthony Early dunk, a Fred VanVleet steal and 3-pointers by Baker and Tekele Cotton.
Elliot and Chonci Lakawa, who had a room at the hotel where the Kentucky team is staying, said that teams coach, John Calipari, had noticed their Shocker shirts and approached them at the hotel on Saturday night.
He said, Wow, I just got done watching film, and Im worried about the Shockers, Elliot Lakawa said. I just said, Thank you. But they should be worried.
Shocker fans, who seemed to slightly outnumber Kentucky fans, definitely outshouted them, at least in the first half.
The second half, though, was made up of the most tense 20 minutes of the past 12 months for many Shocker fans. The game stayed close, with the WSU lead protected by only a tiny cushion. Fans stood up. They sat down. They fled for the concourses, hoping that when they returned, theyd find the Shockers had improved the cushion.
After the game, most fans shuffled silently to the exits, dreading the long, depressing drive home on I-70, which was sure to be packed with cars bearing Sedgwick County plates and filled with long-faced passengers.
The fans who werent silent were complaining under their breath about the officiating, which Shocker fans say was unfair and killed the teams chance of protecting its undefeated season.
Its going to be a long drive home, said Tony Weatherbee, whod started growing a beard in January that he vowed to keep until the Shockers lost. In the seconds after the loss, Weatherbee sat in his seat in a zombie-like state. Maybe he wont shave, he said. Who knows?
Debbie Kennedy, president of the WSU Alumni Association who organized travel and activities for thousands of fans in St. Louis, sat in the stands for a good 10 minutes after everyone else had left. Also still seated were members of the players families, who said they were hoping that maybe, just maybe, the guys would come out. They didnt.
Kennedy, whose eyes were filling with tears, said the Shockers should be proud, regardless of the final score.
Im sad, she said. I think its because we were a team, and that included the fans. So were hurt. But they played their hearts out. They proved they were legit.
Perri Tucker, who is player Evan Wessels girlfriend, stayed in her seat, too.
She said she was feeling that unfamiliar feeling, and she didnt like it. But as the minutes passed, she said, she was getting used to it.
It feels a little too much like last year at the Final Four, she said. You dont forget that feeling. But theyll come back next year even better and stronger. They proved themselves today. Even though they lost, I think they earned a lot of respect.