Red eyes and silent sobs met Gregg Marshall when he entered the Wichita State locker room.
Sunday was senior day at Koch Arena and the 11th-ranked Shockers and their six seniors had come up short in a 62-61 loss to No. 10 Cincinnati, preventing them from claiming a share of the American Athletic Conference championship.
Marshall told them prior to Sunday’s game that he was 18-1 on senior days. The only other loss? In 2013 when WSU lost to Evansville, which also happened to be the last time the Shockers didn’t win at a conference title. That team went on to reach the Final Four.
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“They’re still champions, there’s no doubt about it,” Marshall said in his postgame news conference. “They’re champions in every form, shape, however you want to cut it. On and off the court, those six seniors are champions.”
The loss created a somber mood for the post-game festivities, as Rashard Kelly, Shaquille Morris, Zach Brown, Darral Willis, Conner Frankamp and Rauno Nurger were honored as a senior class that went 58-3 at Koch Arena in the last four years.
“I told them that I loved them,” Marshall said. “As a coach, I wish I could have drawn up one more play, one more basket, at least a free throw so we could have gotten that game into overtime.”
The final minute had a fairy tale set-up: WSU had the ball, down one, with the clock winding down, and Frankamp, the senior from Wichita, shot the potential game-winner. But his three-pointer missed the mark and Cincinnati stormed the court to celebrate its outright title.
Morris, a fifth-year senior, and Kelly were both still trying to wrap their minds around their final game at Koch Arena nearly an hour after the game.
“It’s crazy that it’s done … here,” Morris said, catching himself. “We’ve still got more work to do.”
“The outcome should have been different, but it wasn’t,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to put on our hard hat and get back to work.”
That’s where Marshall’s message resonated with the players.
Losing at home on senior day is a sad experience, but they took solace in knowing that a Marshall-led group had been in this very same spot and persevered to reach the Final Four.
“Tomorrow the sun is going to come up and it’s going to be another day,” WSU sophomore guard Landry Shamet said. “It’s another opportunity for us to move forward. You can’t dwell on something like this.
“I think we all understand where our heads have to be here and what we have to do from here on out.”
Even if their final game at Koch Arena didn’t go the way they wanted, they know their legacy is yet to be finalized.
“One game in March, I’ll take this group of men with me every time,” Kelly said.