CLEVELAND — Gregg Marshall could have searched for excuses. The pod system that gives certain NCAA teams more rest than others. A two decades in the making win over rival Kansas that felt in some ways as satisfying as his Wichita State program’s run to the Final Four two years ago.
There was no point, really. The Shockers’ decisive 81-70 loss to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night had nothing to do with lack of rest or emotional hangovers and everything to do with the Irish’s brilliant offense.
There will be no rematch with Kentucky. There will be no trip to Indianapolis. Another sublimely successful season for the Shockers ended under a torrent of Notre Dame 3-pointers and layups.
Wichita State led just once, going up 38-37 on a basket by Darius Carter with 16:37 to go. Momentum seized, the Shockers appeared poised to set up a potential rematch with the Wildcats, who spoiled Wichita State’s perfect season last spring. It proved fleeting. A 38-18 deluge by the Irish and the Shockers were shocked.
"I’ve never seen a 1-point lead get out of hand so quickly," Marshall said. "It did tonight because of their fire power."
The Irish (32-5) shot 75 percent (18 of 24) in the second half, easily pulling away from the seventh-seeded Shockers (30-5). Notre Dame will play either unbeaten Kentucky or West Virginia on Saturday night with a trip to Indianapolis on the line.
Fred VanVleet led Wichita State with 25 points and Carter finished with 22 in the arena where distant cousin LeBron James plays but Wichita State simply couldn’t keep up.
"I think we gave them too many easy looks inside and we can live with the threes but they just shot layup after layup, it seemed like, and we just for whatever reason couldn’t stop them," VanVleet said.
The Shockers appeared ready to take control after climbing out of a 13-point deficit but Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Irish back in front and Wichita State couldn’t respond.
Once Irish point guard Jerian Grant decided to become a distributor after missing all five of his first-half shots, Notre Dame soared. Wichita State said it had the firepower to keep pace with Notre Dame. The Shockers did for 25 minutes, after that the ACC Tournament champions took flight.
"It’s like blood in the water, you feel it and you want to keep getting stops so you can keep running," Irish guard Pat Connaughton said. "It’s something you can’t get enough of."
It’s a feeling the Shockers have thrived on during their rapid rise under Marshall. There was the sprint to the Final Four two years ago and the 32-0 start last year. The Shockers had similar designs this time around, racing past Indiana then dominating in-state rival Kansas in the round of 32. It was equal parts milestone and statement that Wichita State — which was left off Kansas’ nonconference schedule for years — could no longer be ignored.
Baker admitted toppling the Jayhawks was like reaching Cloud Nine before adding it doesn’t sound quite to appealing when Cloud 10 is two steps away.
The Shockers didn’t even get halfway there. Notre Dame picked Wichita State apart in the early going. The Irish hit eight of their first 10 shots and led by as many as 13 points before the Shockers settled in behind Carter, Ron Baker and VanVleet, who long ago grew accustomed to performing in the unique crucible the tournament provides.
VanVleet scored Wichita State’s final seven points of the first half to pull within 33-30 but it merely set the stage for another Notre Dame blitz.
Marshall isn’t exactly a fan of the tournament setup that gave the Irish an extra day of rest but stressed it was not an excuse.
"I just don’t like the pod system or whatever they call it," Marshall said before adding, "I don’t like that, it’s not good, but that has nothing to do with the game. The better team won tonight."
Wichita State: The Shockers are 4-2 all-time in the Sweet 16. … The Shockers shot 40 percent (26 of 65) and made just three of 18 3-point attempts. … Baker had nine points, all in the first half. He missed all five of his shots in the second half.
Notre Dame: Connaughton played in his 138th game for the Irish, a school record. … Notre Dame made nine of 19 3-point attempts, with Jackson making four of five.
Wichita State: Shockers lose starters Carter and Cotton while Baker and VanVleet weigh whether to return or go pro.
Notre Dame: Irish try to move on to first Final Four since 1978, when they lost to Duke in the national semifinals.