Foul trouble didn’t force Fred VanVleet off the court during a 78-76 loss to Kentucky on Sunday at the Scottrade Center, but it did affect the way he played.
After the sophomore guard picked up his fourth foul with 4 minutes, 52 seconds remaining, he had no choice but to ease up on defense.
“I would have liked to have been a little bit more aggressive,” VanVleet said. “We had to switch some match-ups at the end, because of my foul trouble. So I can’t put myself in that position, obviously.”
That left VanVleet wondering, what if? Had he played smarter on defense, maybe No. 1 seed Wichita State would have possessed a late lead. Maybe it wouldn’t have needed a last-second shot from VanVleet to win. Maybe the Shockers would be headed to the Sweet 16.
Instead, VanVleet missed and Wichita State’s dream season came to an early end in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.
“I picked up some cheap ones early on and it is just hard to play like that coming down the stretch,” VanVleet said, “especially when they realize I have four fouls, so they were just trying to attack me and get me out of the game.”
Kentucky guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison did most of the attacking. Andrew, the Wildcats’ point guard, benefited from seven free throws on his way to 20 points. Aaron, a shooting guard, got to the free-throw line four times and had 19 points.
VanVleet didn’t want to pick up his fifth and final foul, which put a strain on Wichita State’s defense as a whole.
“I wish,” VanVleet said, shaking his head and unable to finish his thought, “ I had one cheap one on the offensive rebound. I think they called it on me and it was somebody else, but it’s over now.”
VanVleet had an opportunity to save the day at the end. Wichita State called timeout with 3.2 seconds remaining and Gregg Marshall drew up the final play. Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker were the primary options, but they were swarmed by Kentucky defenders.
So the ball went to VanVleet and he fired a three with 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein flying at him, but it bounced off the rim.
VanVleet took the miss hard, but his teammates said they had no regrets. Even Early, who many assumed would take the final shot after scoring 31 points, was supportive.
“Me and Fred, we good,” Early said. “Of course I would have liked to have been the one to take that last shot, but I wasn’t. I’m not one of those guys to step back and say, ‘What if?’ Because it didn’t happen. I didn’t get the ball and I didn’t shoot it. I’m not going to wonder why.”
Baker won’t play that game, either.
He urged VanVleet to put his foul trouble, his miss and this loss behind him.
“I wouldn’t want anyone else to take (the final shot),” Baker said. “I saw it go up and saw that it was a tad long, but I still thought it had a chance. I went up and told him I wouldn’t want anyone else taking that shot. It was a great effort, and we can live with that every time.”