The college basketball world kept waiting for the stage to get too big, for the scene to overwhelm Wichita State.
It never did, even as the lead slipped away in Saturday’s NCAA national semifinal in the Georgia Dome. The ninth-seeded Shockers proved they belonged in the Final Four, which must make what happened more painful. The Shockers controlled most of the game and a spot in Monday’s championship game awaited, a few minutes away.
“We felt like we had the game won,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said.
“When we were up 12, it felt really comfortable,” teammate Ron Baker said.
So close to extending three weekends of superb basketball another two days, so close to playing for the school’s first NCAA basketball title.
Louisville, however, ended that dream with a closing push that wore down the Shockers. The Cardinals, down 12 in the second half, defeated WSU 72-68.
Louisville (34-5) plays in Monday’s title game in search of the school’s third NCAA title. WSU (30-9) must be satisfied — hard as it is to say — with a history-making run that came up a few turnovers and few minutes short of playing for No. 1.
“This one’s especially hard because of the run we went on,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “This may be the most important game that I’ll ever coach. It’s probably the most important that Wichita State’s ever played in.”
The Shockers lived up to that for more than 30 minutes. For most of the game, Wichita State made Louisville’s press look like little more than a nuisance. The Shockers calmly worked the ball upcourt, foiling the pressure with several ball-handlers, and took away Louisville’s source of offense. The Shockers committed four turnovers in the game’s first seven minutes. Then it didn’t commit another one until seven minutes remained.
“Pressing teams have to stay in there,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We started making some steals, picking up the heat.”
Cleanthony Early led WSU with 24 points, making 8 of 14 shots. Carl Hall added 13. Malcolm Armstead, who averaged 15.5 points in four tournament games, scored two and missed 9 of 10 shots.
Russ Smith led Louisville with 21 points. Luke Hancock added 20, making 3 of 5 threes. He scored 14 points in the second half.
WSU led by 12 points with 13:36 remaining and the Cardinals cut that lead in half in just over a minute. WSU pushed it back to eight points, briefly, and Louisville kept coming. It trailed 55-53 when three players engulfed Carl Hall and knocked the ball away, leading to a three-pointer by Hancock for a 56-55 lead with 6:30 remaining.
The Cardinals forced seven turnovers in the final seven minutes and scored nine points off those turnovers.
“We made our run late,” Louisville guard Peyton Siva said. “That’s the trademark of our team.”
The Shockers, calm and composed most of the game, allowed Louisville’s pressure to take over in the final minutes. VanVleet got going too fast and threw a pass away. Chane Behanan snuck behind Armstead, after a rebound, and poked the ball away. Smith stole an inbound pass and turned it into a layup for a 60-58 lead.
“We just didn’t take care of it,” Armstead said. “I can’t give you an explanation.”
The Cardinals turned it over to Hancock in the final minutes. His three-pointer gave them a 65-60 lead at the two-minute mark. His driving layup restored a five-point edge, 67-62.
He also made one of the game’s biggest defensive plays by tying up Baker, after a missed free throw, with 6.3 seconds remaining. The possession arrow went Louisville’s way, denying WSU the ball down three points.
Baker, who rebounded and then needed to dribble to gain his balance, thought he got rid of the ball to Armstead in time to avoid the jump ball. The referees disagreed and the Cardinals inbounded the ball to Smith, who made a free throw with 4.9 seconds to play for the final margin.
Early, a junior, came up big on the biggest stage. He grabbed 10 rebounds and scored 15 of his points in the second half. In the final minutes, he kept the Shockers close with his offensive rebounding.
His tip made it 67-64. Smith made a foul shot for a 68-64 lead with 45 seconds remaining. Early tipped in another miss to make it 68-66 with 31.6 seconds to play. Smith made two more free throws with 29.9 seconds to play for a four-point edge. Baker missed an off-balance three and Hall rebounded and scored to cut the margin to 70-68 with 12 seconds to play.