LOS ANGELES — Wichita State’s players were still wearing their game faces late Saturday afternoon, even after hoisting the West Regional trophy at center court and cutting down the nets at Staples Center.
This is business. There was time to enjoy their 70-66 win over Ohio State, but the Shockers seemed reluctant to lose focus.
“It feels good, but I feel like this team, we aren’t done yet,” forward Carl Hall said. “So it’s on to the next game. We celebrate tonight, but tomorrow we’re back to work again.”
That’s when his coach, Gregg Marshall, interrupted him.
“We’ll probably take tomorrow off,” Marshall said, smiling.
Why stop the momentum? The No. 9-seeded Shockers beat La Salle on Thursday, then upset third-seeded Ohio State with a shutdown defense that held the Buckeyes to just 24-percent shooting in the first half and 31 percent for the game.
Wichita State (30-8) cordons off the paint, blocks shots when opponents attempt to score inside and makes teams settle for jump shots. But when teams don’t make them, the results can be predictable.
The Buckeyes (29-8) relied on the shooting of Deshaun Thomas to get them this far, but the junior forward misfired almost the entire game. After making 57.5 percent of his attempts in the first three NCAA tournament games, he was just 8 of 20 against the Shockers and missed all six of his 3-pointers.
Thomas, LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft were a combined 14 of 44, and no Ohio State player shot 50 percent or higher.
“The way we shot the ball coming into the Elite Eight and Sweet 16, man, everything was falling,” Thomas said. “Today, nothing was falling.”
There is no game plan to make a team shoot better. Either they fall or they don’t. The Buckeyes tried to get inside for easier shots, but Wichita State is a difficult match in the paint. The Shockers had nine blocked shots in the game, six by Hall.
“We could never knock a couple down,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “We couldn’t string together a couple of positive possessions that would enable us to mix it up a little bit.
“I thought our defense was good enough, but we just needed something to ignite the offense.”
They gave it a try. After falling behind by 20 points at the 12:39 mark of the second half, the Buckeyes made a belated move. They pressed on inbound passes, they got some offensive rebounds and put-backs, they even hit from outside.
With 2:48 to play, it was a three-point game, 62-59, and a languid Ohio State crowd was on its feet.
“They were able to drive, get to the line,” Marshall said. “It’s human nature, I guess, when you get up 20 to be a little more cautious and not be overly aggressive on the ball. But they were using that to their advantage and getting to the hole.”
Wichita State also temporarily lost forward Cleanthony Early, who came down awkwardly on his left ankle early in the second half. He appeared seriously hurt at first and left the court for treatment in the locker room, but returned later and finished with 12 points and 7 rebounds.
“I heard he was getting X-rays,” Marshall said, “and the next thing I know he’s back in the game. He’s an interesting bird.”
The Shockers scored key baskets in the final minute to maintain their lead, but if they felt any trepidation, they didn’t show it.
“Stay together, stay positive,” guard Malcolm Armstead said. “Good teams are going to make runs, so it’s just a matter of staying confident and weathering the storm.”
They did that, preventing Ohio State from advancing to a second consecutive Final Four. Now the stage is theirs.
“We’re exciting, we’re happy,” Early said. “We’re ready to play in Atlanta.”