Wichita State got giddy after advancing to the Sweet 16. Moving on to the Elite Eight produced a more measured response, one from a team that is suddenly experienced winning big games and knows it needs at least one more.
WSU advanced to the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament — the Elite Eight — for the first time since 1981 with Thursday’s 72-58 win over La Salle at Staples Center in a West Regional semifinal.
No dancing. No curtain calls with the band. The Shockers hugged, clapped and smiled. They looked like a team that wants to cut down nets on Saturday and really let loose.
“We need one more win to seal this deal,” WSU guard Ron Baker said.
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The ninth-seeded Shockers (29-8) will play second-seeded Ohio State on Saturday in the West Regional final, with the winner headed to Atlanta for the Final Four. WSU is 40 minutes away from the national semifinals, a height reached in 1965. The 1964 and 1981 Shockers lost in regional finals, falling one game short of the Final Four.
WSU is the first Missouri Valley Conference team to make the Elite Eight since the 1981 team, which defeated Kansas in the Sweet 16 before losing to LSU in New Orleans. Indiana State, in 1979, is the last MVC team play in the Final Four.
All that, and perhaps more, is two halves away for WSU.
“Forty minutes away,” WSU guard Malcolm Armstead said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Armstead led WSU with 18 points, 13 in the second half. Carl Hall added 16, 14 in the first half. WSU out-rebounded La Salle 47-29, helping it to a 40-26 edge scoring in the lane.
The Shockers decided this one early, establishing their dominance in the lane with height and aggressiveness. The team that made “Play Angry” its motto and answered the “Are you satisfied” question from its coach in the negative came out hungry. They led 14-2 and the Explorers (24-10) never recovered. Hall scored 10 of those points.
“That was the game plan,” Armstead said. “We tried to wear them down, pound it inside.”
La Salle looked worn down throughout the game, both because of WSU’s hustle and, perhaps, because of its travel schedule. The Explorers had to win three games last week.
“I think we were a little fresher and I think we were beating them down the floor,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Carl Hall set the tone with just out-running their bigs.”
La Salle’s four-guard offense failed to generate consistent scoring with WSU’s guards bottling them up. When they slipped through, Hall and others blocked and altered shots. The Shockers held the Explorers (24-10) to 35.7-percent shooting.
“WSU won the game in the first half,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “They really overwhelmed us. It took us a half to adjust to the level they were playing at.”
Ramon Galloway, La Salle’s leading scorer, failed to shed WSU’s Tekele Cotton and had 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting. Forward Jerrell Wright and guard Tyrone Garland both scored 16.
The Shockers won with Hall in the first half, overpowering the smaller Explorers on their way to 38-22 lead. They hit them with three-pointers early in the second half. When the Explorers briefly rallied midway through the second half, Armstead took over with nine straight points to take the life out of La Salle. His three-pointer gave WSU a 62-47 lead with 6:40 to play.
“Armstead was huge at that time,” Giannini said. “We were playing well enough at that time to have a chance, but Armstead wouldn’t allow it.”
A follow shot by Ron Baker and a layup by Cotton made it 66-48. Seconds later, Giannini called timeout and fans started leaving. Another Explorers turnover led to a layup by Early and the WSU fans started celebrating with a 20-point lead.
WSU was on its way to the Elite Eight with a blowout. The celebration unfolded in subdued fashion compared to Saturday’s scene in Salt Lake City after beating Gonzaga. Marshall cuffed assistant coach Chris Jans around the head with a big smile. The players clapped and hugged. They looked more focused on the next game than popping jerseys and dancing with the band.
The Shockers played just as sharply to begin the second half.
WSU forced a La Salle timeout just over a minute into the second half with three-pointers by Armstead and Baker. Those baskets stretched WSU’s lead to 44-22, its largest of the game, and inspired the band into playing the “Shocker War Chant.”
La Salle refused to roll over, sparked by unexpected baskets in the lane by Jerrell Wright. He spent most of the first half on the bench with two fouls. In the second half, La Salle got him the ball and he converted two free throws, a three-point play and a layup to cut WSU’s lead to 44-29. Then Galloway sank a long three-pointer to complete a 10-0 run.
Baker’s three, on a break, stopped the run gave WSU a 47-22 lead. The Explorers kept coming, however, helped when Hall picked up his third foul after setting a screen and running over a defender with 13 minutes remaining. La Salle cut the lead to 49-38 on a three-point play by Tyreek Duren.
WSU made its size advantage work from the tip, going small without really going small. Early replaced center Ehimen Orukpe in the lineup. The Shockers rode Hall, who scored 10 of their first 14 points on the way to a 14-2 lead. Hall scored twice on lobs over the defender, once on a follow shot and once off a bounce pass from Armstead on a break.
Fred VanVleet’s three-pointer, with the shot clock running down, gave WSU a 17-3 lead. The Shockers made 8 of their first 12 shots, holding the Explorers to 2-of-11 shooting at the 11:49 mark to lead 17-6.
The Explorers made one run in the first half, cutting WSU’s lead from 25-12 to 25-17. The Shockers quickly regained control and then pulled away again. Early’s drive and basket started an 11-2 run to end the half and give WSU a 38-22 lead.
WSU’s final eight minutes of near-perfect execution against Gonzaga flowed almost seamlessly into the first half. It made 16 of 30 shots and out-rebounded the Explorers 26-12. WSU dominated with its size, outscoring La Salle 24-10 in the lane.
Hall scored 14 points in the first half, making 7 of 8 shots, and grabbing six rebounds.
WSU held Galloway to five points on a 2-of-9 shooting in the first half. Tekele Cotton spent most of the half shadowing Galloway, forcing him into two airballs. Armstead, Baker and Demetric Williams also took turns guarding him. Tyrone Garland led La Salle with eight points, making 2 of 10 shots.