It took a village for Shockers to win ‘Battle of Omaha’
OMAHA, Neb. — Shirtless and grinning, his eyes half buried by a multicolored bucket hat, Bush Wamukota flashed back Sunday night to a conversation Gregg Marshall had with him a few hours earlier.
"I want you, when your name is called, to be ready," Marshall, the Shockers’ venerated coach, challenged the backup center during the lead-up to Wichita State 78, Kansas 65. "And make sure that you produce for us."
With 9:14 to go in the first half of the third round of the NCAA Tournament and Wichita big men Darius Carter and Shaquille Morris in foul trouble, Wamukota, a 6-foot-11 junior college transfer from Kenya, got that call.
"So I made sure that I was ready on the bench," shrugged Wamukota, who logged a season-high 14 minutes, snared two rebounds, drained his first free-throw make in more than a month and was cited by Kansas coach Bill Self after the tilt for playing some of the best post defense he’d seen against the Jayhawks all year. "When my name was called, I was able to produce."
It takes a village to dance in March, sometimes. Stars get the ink. Survivors have a bridge to Plan D and Plan E. Just in case.
"The biggest contributions, really," star Shockers point guard Fred VanVleet mused from his locker stall, ice cooling a sore left elbow, "were from guys who hadn’t had any experience (Big Dance)."
Undersized forward Evan Wessel, 6-4 and built more like an outside linebacker than a classic "4" man, drained four 3-pointers, scored 12 and snared nine rebounds; he came into the NCAA Tournament having made all of 27 treys for the season and 44 over the previous four years combined. Freshman forward Zach Brown, who had averaged 9.8 minutes and 2.9 points before the weekend, netted seven points against the Jayhawks — giving him 18 over his first two Big Dance tests — and dropped a back-breaking trey from the left corner that put the seventh-seeded Shox up 13 with 7:27 to go in the contest.
"And it was the same way when we went to the Final Four (in 2013)," said VanVleet, the orchestra conductor, who went for 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. "I was playing; I didn’t have any experience. Ron Baker was playing huge minutes; he didn’t have any experience. Tekele (Cotton) was a sophomore. So experience, it can help you. But it’s not everything at this time of the year."
VanVleet and Baker (12 points, three boards) are going to get theirs, more often than not. When Cotton nets 19 and Carter chips in 10 and Wessel plays like a man possessed — he spent much of the night either diving for loose balls, launching daggers or tossing Kansas counterpart Perry Ellis, his old prep teammate at Wichita Heights (Kan.) High School, around like a rag doll — the Shockers (30-4), heading to their second Sweet 16 in three years, are a beast of an out.
"He was huge, man," VanVleet said. "He stretched the floor, not only offensively. He guarded Perry, rebounded well and knocking down that three…. It’s going to be hard for teams to guard us if he makes that."
All five of the Shockers’ starters scored in double figures. Eight different Wichita State players logged at least 10 minutes. And, hey, fun fact: When a Shox player other than Baker, VanVleet, Cotton or Carter reaches double digits in scoring, Wichita is now 10-0.
"Coach Marshall believes in us," Brown said. "He believes, when we have the shot, to take it. And that we’re confident in the shots that we do take."
Self gambled against that moxie, as most peers would. The game plan was a percentages one, to let the lesser known crew members on the Pacific Princess try to steer "The Love Boat" through the canal. When his preferred man-to-man approach failed, the Kansas coach tried junking it up with zones, including the famed triangle-and-2 approach that had sunk Roy Williams and North Carolina three NCAA tourneys earlier. Nada.
"I think they scored eight points on three possessions (against) the zone," said Self, whose second-seeded Jayhawks (27-9) were knocked out of the tourney’s first full weekend for a second straight year and by a Missouri Valley school for the first time since Northern Iowa did the deed in 2010. "In the triangle-and-2 that we (tried), the guys that were supposed to shoot it actually shot it. And they made it. They basically made shots and made plays."
Self has his own problems, of course, having been exposed without a true rim protector (again) and lost for counter-options with Ellis battling knee problems, Cliff Alexander in NCAA limbo and shooting guard Wayne Selden’s head (0 for five from the floor, two turnovers) off to Venus or similar parts unknown.
"Usually, my defense gets me going," Selden said. "Usually, when I play good, as a player, that’s how I get engaged. And (Sunday) I wasn’t fully engaged. (Sunday), I wasn’t focused on the task at hand."
Bracketville is all about daydreaming; just not during the actual games themselves. Nor did it comfort the legions of Kansas faithful when freshman wing star Kelly Oubre — in what could be his last contest in a Jayhawk uniform — allegedly told reporters that he’d slept through Wichita State’s 81-76 win over Indiana in the second round.
"He can sleep all he wants to now," VanVleet countered.
The Shockers — like their fans, who pined for this night since 1993, the last time the two in-state schools crossed swords — wanted this one more. And the longer things played out, the longer the Jayhawks trailed, the wider that gap became, an older, veteran backcourt gleefully turning the screws on its younger counterparts.
Wichita was better off inbounds plays. Better coming out of timeouts. Hungrier. And, as it says on the business card, angrier.
With 5:43 left in the first half, Ellis took an elbow to the face on a VanVleet drive, and sat under the basket for a few moments while trainers dealt with a bloody nose. The Wichita native trudged back to the locker room for a short spell but would return — although he wasn’t the same afterward: 0 for two from the floor with a turnover the rest of the period. KU wasn’t really the same, either: The Shockers outscored the No. 2 seed 13-4 over the final 5:50 of the half, taking the lead back, 29-26, on a VanVleet trey with 54 seconds left on the clock.
After Ellis took that shot to the face, the Shockers pieced together a 30-14 run, flipping a 20-16 deficit into a 46-34 cushion on a trey from — who else? — Wessel.
"Hey, if we need to play Kansas every day for Evan to play like that," VanVleet said, "we just need to put ‘KANSAS’ on the other team’s shirt."
Another fun fact: The Jayhawks had actually recruited Wessel, back in his prep days.
To play football.
"For us, the hatred, all that stuff, is between fan bases," VanVleet said. "We don’t play those guys (at Kansas). We don’t really know those guys. If we see them, we’re not going to be mad at them."
Of course, we can’t guarantee the Jayhawks won’t be cheesed off. In the second half, the Shockers outscored KU 8-2 on fast-break points and 14-7 on points off turnovers. The Jayhawks gave it away eight times in the second half; Wichita, just five.
"You just said it all right there," Kansas forward Jamari Traylor said. "That was pretty much the tale of the game."
It was a far cry from what was expected, a far cry from Wichita’s epic 66-65 last-second win over KU in the 1981 Midwest Regional semis, the last time the two programs tussled in an NCAA tilt. That one was christened "The Battle Of New Orleans," elevated over the decades to the stuff of Shocker legend.
This? This was "The Funeral Of Omaha." Cindy’s revenge.
"I’m not going to lie," Wamukota said, grinning again. "Winning feels good."
In Wichita, winning rarely felt better.