Gregg Marshall emerged from the Wichita State locker room at the FedExForum on Saturday night with tears welling up in his eyes.
For the first time in eight years, the Shockers will not be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Their only chance of continuing that streak — winning the American Athletic Conference tournament — had just ended, courtesy of a 66-63 loss to No. 23 Cincinnati in the semifinals.
This has been the most dramatic roller coaster of a season Marshall has been through in 12 years at WSU. From losing the season-opener at Koch Arena to Louisiana Tech to losing six of the first seven conference games to winning 11 of 13 to reach Saturday’s semifinals to falling one possession short of reaching the tournament championship game.
Nine months of emotion seemed to hit Marshall all at once, but the feeling that swelled up the most inside him was pride over his 19-14 team.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team,” Marshall said after some thought. “We’ve never won a national championship, but we did go to a Final Four. We won the NIT. We were a 1 seed, 35-0. But I’ve never been more proud of a group of guys and what they’ve done this year. They’ve come a long way.”
Marshall viewed WSU’s game against Cincinnati on Saturday as a microcosm of the Shockers’ season.
There was a blow early on when WSU went eight minutes without a field goal and fell behind by seven points in the first half. The Shockers were able to stabilize themselves temporarily, taking a three-point lead into halftime, but then full-on adversity struck. WSU was pummeled in the first 11 minutes of the second half, missing 15 of 18 shots and falling behind by as many as 13 points.
“That wasn’t the first time we’ve been counted out this season,” WSU freshman Dexter Dennis said. “We’ve been in that situation so many times before, I think it’s our natural instinct now to fight back and keep fighting. But it started with coach.”
During a media timeout halfway through the second half, Marshall looked his players in the eye and asked if eight weeks ago, when the Shockers were in the midst of their lowest point of the season, would they have taken their current situation: down eight to Cincinnati with 10:13 remaining for a spot in the tournament championship game.
WSU was dangerously teetering on the edge of staying competitive, but Marshall’s question put their predicament in a new light. After that timeout, the Shockers found new life.
“That’s what made us want to fight back,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “It just shows you how great of a coach he is and how much he loves this basketball team.”
McDuffie and Dennis immediately responded by hitting three-pointers, forcing Cincinnati to call timeout and bring Marshall storming on the court pumping his fists and trying to instill confidence. McDuffie followed with another three, WSU senior Samajae Haynes-Jones finished a layup, Jaime Echenique scored four straight, freshman Erik Stevenson buried a deep three and Haynes-Jones finished the rally by blowing past his defender to finish with a finger roll.
In less than six minutes, the Shockers had battled back from a 13-point deficit to tie Cincinnati 62-62 with three minutes remaining. It was an extraordinary effort by WSU to absorb such an enormous rally from a top-25 team and push back with its own dominant play.
Who thought this was possible in January?
“How many times were we buried and dead?” Marshall said. “1-6 in the conference and 8-11 at one point. To just keep coming in with an attitude of, ‘We’re going to get better today, and we’re going to figure out what we can do individually and collectively to improve.”
The players and Marshall pointed to the seniors, McDuffie and Haynes-Jones, who combined for 35 points and were the only two WSU players in double-digits, as the reason why the Shockers were able to remain poised in that situation.
“I’m so proud of this basketball team and the way they kept their head up,” McDuffie said. “That’s what me and Samajae told them, ‘Keep your head up, the game’s not over.’ Sometimes with a young team like this when the score is going the other way, they can get down on themselves too much. But these guys kept their head up and they kept fighting.”
To Marshall, it was an emotional moment to see two players start so far away from being leaders to maturing into leaders strong enough to lead the Shockers through the most adversity they’ve had in a decade.
“Markis and Samajae have been disappointed, we’ve all been disappointed this season,” Marshall said. “We’re disappointed right now. There’s been disappointment. There’s been shortcomings. There’s been doubt. But the way they’ve handled not only their business, but the example that they’ve set for the younger player s... for me as a 56-year-old man, that’s been incredible to see.”
The game came down to the final 30 seconds with the score tied. The difference in the game was slight: Cane Broome finished a contested layup with 23 seconds to break a 63-63 tie, then McDuffie missed a contested layup with five seconds left.
Apparently WSU thought it would inbound the ball from the sideline when Marshall drew up his play. Instead, the officials gave WSU the ball underneath the basket on the baseline. That left WSU freelancing with McDuffie receiving the pass and attacking the basket.
“I thought I was going to get an and-1 or make the layup,” McDuffie said. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
Now the Shockers will await their fate on Sunday night to see if they will receive an invitation to the National Invitational Tournament. If they miss the cut, Marshall said it will be up to the players if WSU plays in another postseason tournament.
This wasn’t the ending the Shockers wanted in Memphis, but it was an ending they could be proud of.
“We went through a lot this year,” Haynes-Jones said. “Ending the way we did, doing something big, that’s something I’ll always remember. Working so hard for every win, it feels good.”
“This definitely hurts because we weren’t ready to lose,” McDuffie said. “This team overcame so much adversity all year. This is one of the toughest challenges I’ve had in my four years here. For us to go to a super low point to become one of the hottest teams in the country, that just shows you how great (Marshall) is at coaching us and how much we really did get better.”