Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall stood on the ladder and counted down to the crowd of fans in Staples Center.
“Four,” he yelled, holding up four fingers. “Two. One.”
“Four. Two. One.”
“Four. Two. One.”
Wichita State can play angry all the way to Atlanta for the Final Four after Saturday’s 70-66 win over second-seeded Ohio State. The Shockers believe they can play angry all the way to the NCAA title.
The ninth-seeded Shockers (30-8) finished their march through the regional with a tour de force of aggression, determination and spirit properly channeled. They cut down nets, posed for pictures with the West Regional trophy and quickly talked about finishing in the Georgia Dome, where they expect to cut down more nets.
“Happiness throughout my whole body,” WSU freshman Ron Baker said. “It’s my (20th) birthday and we’re going to the Final Four.”
The Shockers are in the Final Four. Next up is two and then one.
“It feels good, but we’re not done yet,” senior Carl Hall said. “It’s on to the next game. We’re just ready to go and make a run for this thing.”
WSU knocked off the top two seeds in the region on its way to its first Final Four since 1965. It will play the winner of Sunday’s Duke-Louisville game on Saturday.
Coach Gregg Marshall hugged Lynn, his wife, before cutting down the nets. It took him 15 seconds to control his emotions before summing it up.
“Awesome,” he said. “It’s great. So many people were positive that first year (2007-08). I remember getting a standing ovation after we lost a game at home. Because we were playing our butts off. We’ve got some of the most loyal fans. They deserve this more than you know.”
The Shockers won a school-record 30th game with 35 minutes of superb play and five holding on for dear life to earn the biggest road trip of their careers.
Ohio State (29-8) made a late push, pressing and tiring out the Shockers. It got within three points before WSU pushed back. Tekele Cotton’s three gave WSU a 65-59 lead. Then his offensive rebound — beating bigger players to the ball — gave the Shockers possession. That ended with Fred VanVleet’s shot in the lane bouncing on the rim once, twice, three times before settling in for a 67-61 lead. After an Aaron Craft miss, Ron Baker made two free throws for a 69-61 lead with 51.3 seconds to play.
“We needed a bucket,” VanVleet said. “Probably not the most pretty shot, but it went for me.”
Malcolm Armstead led WSU with 14 points. Early and VanVleet each added 12. Baker scored nine points, all from the foul line.
La Quinton Ross led Ohio State with 19 points. Ohio State shot 31.1 percent for the game. It fell behind in the first half with a miserable shooting performance, 8 of 33 and 2 of 10 from three-point range.
“Man, they D’d us up,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. “You can’t go 8 for 31 in the first half of a great team.”
WSU made strong starts a trademark this tournament. It took the fight to Pittsburgh in its opener. It led top-seeded Gonzaga by 13 in the first half. It blitzed La Salle with a 17-3 start.
“We had energy from the get-go,” Cotton said. “We wanted to come out and make a statement that we weren’t going to bow down to nobody.”
WSU weathered — or didn’t need to weather — the Buckeyes’ surge early in the second half. While the Shockers prepared for it, it never happened. They scored the first six points of the second half to build a 41-25 lead. Armstead’s three made it 44-27 within inside 15 minutes remaining.
Ohio State made it push midway the half. Ross scored 10 of Ohio State’s 12 points in a burst that got it within 56-43.
WSU’s offense stalled and Early went to the locker room for X-rays after landing awkwardly on his left ankle. He returned minutes later, with WSU holding a 56-45 lead.
His return paid off quickly with his steal of pass by Ross. That led to a three-point play for VanVleet and a 60-45 lead with 7:03 remaining.
Ohio State responded with a 7-0 run that cut tiring WSU’s lead to 60-52. It kept coming, getting within 62-57 before Tekele Cotton’s three revived WSU momentarily.
Wichita State’s offensive resurgence continued in the first half. The Shockers made 5 of 12 three-pointers and led 35-22 at halftime.
“Our first half was probably the worst I have seen us play in a very long time,” Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “They came out and fought from the jump ball.”
Its defense maintained its season-long status. Ohio State, denied driving lanes and post shots, shot contested jumpers and missed. It finished the half 8 of 33 from the field and 2 of 10 from behind the arc. Thomas made 4 of 13 shots and missed all five of his threes.