For the Shockers, the ‘1’ in 35-1 takes nothing away from the 35-0 that preceded it
ST. LOUIS — There is no comfort in a stone-cold instant classic for the losers. There is no consolation in leaving America breathless, panting and wanting more. All you know is a dream is gone, in an instant, like breath on a mirror. And the only thing staring back at you in the reflection are tears.
"It’s bittersweet," Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early said, shoulders slumped. "You know what I mean?"
Dubious 8 seed Kentucky 78, disrespected 1 seed Shockers 76. Three ties, 14 lead changes, 4,192 cases of near-cardiac arrest, and Big Blue Nation marches on to Indianapolis.
So, yeah. We know exactly what you mean, Cle.
"I thought it was a very good game," said off-guard Ron Baker, who went for 20 points, five boards and four treys. "Like I told you all (Saturday), I told you it would come down to rebounds. They kicked us on the glass early in the second half and were getting to the line a lot. And that’s the difference in the game, right there, if you look at the shot chart."
Stat sheets lie, but this particular line doesn’t:
In the second half, Team Perfect T-shirt went to the stripe 19 times, sinking 15 of them. Team Perfect Record made nine trips and converted only four.
That’s an 11-point swing, right there, the kind of detail that tends to get magnified when you’re also outrebounded by nine (32-23) for the afternoon.
"In the end, they just basically lowered their head," coach Gregg Marshall said after his Shockers’ perfect season (35-1), perfect bracket and perfect March came crashing to a halt, all in the same fell swoop. "And for the first time this year, it seemed like the rules, the new rules, worked against us as opposed to in our favor. So credit them.
"And that was a big key: We couldn’t defend the foul line at the end the last eight or 10 minutes."
Kentucky took 14 free throws in the last nine minutes, and made 12. The Shockers took four over that stretch and made two. Funny how, in this arena, the biggest games are decided by the smallest of margins.
And yet, if point guard Fred VanVleet’s 3-pointer at the top of the arc with time running out veers a different way …
"I saw it, and it looked a tad long," Baker would say later. "And I thought it might bank in."
It didn’t. The final play, with 3.2 seconds left, was an option look for VanVleet, depending on what was available. The first choice, a feed to Early — who was on "NBA Jam" fire, netting 31 points in his final collegiate game — for a lob or fade, was covered. Baker in the corner, Option 2, appeared to be a dead end. So No. 23 let fly with a hand in his face and … clang. Horn. No more perfecto.
"I heard a lot of Kentucky fans cheering," Baker continued, "and it just kind of burnt my heart a little bit."
But then he also did this:
"I ran over to Fred and I told him (that) I didn’t want anybody else taking that final shot. I just wanted him to know that it was a great shot, and we would live with that, every time."
Given time, Shockers fans will, too. After all, without VanVleet, there is no 1 seed, no undefeated regular season, no magazine covers, no banners.
He’s a sophomore. So is Baker. Tekele Cotton is a junior. Whether you’re a Shocker fan or a Shocker doubter, as far as the national scene goes, Wichita isn’t going anywhere. You may not love Marshall, but you’re going to have to live with him.
"This one game," reserve guard Evan Wessell said, "doesn’t change anything (about) what we accomplished all season."
No. No, it doesn’t. Sunday will feel like a missed opportunity for Wichita, now and forever, but it doesn’t immediately invalidate the 35 straight victories that came before it. The Shockers have two losses in 13 months. One was to the eventual national champions. The other was to the preseason No. 1. No shame in that. None.
Two losses, both to the state of Kentucky. Both to bluebloods, the oldest of old money. Both games, a scrap. Both games, tight. Both games, close.
But close doesn’t count here. Close gets you a golf clap in Lawrence and a pffffttttth in Manhattan.
"There are always going to be skeptics and critics," Wessel said. "But our group of guys know what we have and know how special it was."
The Wildcats know, too. In three days, the flagship program in the Commonwealth sent two of the three bigguns from the state of Kansas home, but this one was a coin-flip from tip to buzzer. It was the kind of matchup you watch the Big Dance for: a team of McDonald’s All-Americans against a team of Cozy Inn misfits, NBA money versus MBA money. They were probably always destined to meet on this stage, except that Kentucky was supposed to be the 1 seed fighting for its tourney life and Wichita was supposed to be the scrappy, under-seeded 8.
"You all understand (that) this was an Elite Eight game," UK coach John Calipari said. "This was an Elite Eight game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four. That’s what this was."
It is also no consolation that — by accounts of non-Big Blue eyeballs who follow the ‘Cats — Sunday was Team Cal’s best single-tilt performance, by far. Kentucky was an 8 seed by number only, the same way the Shockers were a 9 the year before.
The ‘Cats could win the whole thing; the personnel is that good. Of course, Louisville, the defending champ, will have a hell of a lot to say about that. And like most young teams, Big Blue veers toward the mercurial: For 15 minutes, they look like the Miami Heat. For the next 10, they look like Miami Sound Machine.
There was a little of that Sunday, too, midway through the first half, mostly, when the very savvy, very handsy Shockers backcourt sparked a 17-5 run and turned stops, missed shots and steals into runouts on the other end of the floor.
The Harrison brothers, Andrew and Aaron, the 6-foot-6 freshmen who helm the Kentucky backcourt, combined for 14 points in the first period but also seven turnovers; the Shox led at the break by 6.
Everybody knew it would be an uphill battle for Wichita in the post, given the Wildcats’ length. The hope-slash-thought was that the Shockers’ guard trio of VanVleet, Baker and Cotton might run circles around their counterparts in blue. But the Harrisons worked VanVleet into foul trouble early in the second period, then took turns setting up Julius Randle (13 points, 10 rebounds) in the post; kicking out to swingman James Young (13 points, three treys), who was massive in the final two minutes; or crashing the lane.
When the dust cleared, the Shockers’ big three in the backcourt combined for 29 points, 13 assists, five treys and three steals. Kentucky’s Harrisons totaled 39 points, four assists, five treys and two steals.
"Even when you win a game, you think about the little things you could have done more," Wichita forward Darius Carter sighed. "I mean, this hurts. I’m going to think about this game for a long time."
He’ll think about the same burning sensation that Baker felt in his chest when he realized the magic carpet ride was over, about the silence in the locker room that followed. He’ll think about the four circles at the top of the dry-erase board across from his stall, the circles that represented the four halves to win in St. Louis.
Only three were checked off. One circle remained empty. A reminder.
"Coach Calipari had some (nice) words, and a couple of assistant coaches had some words," Early said. "And they just told me to keep my head up and the same thing: ‘You’re a bad boy.’"
Unfortunately, there’s no consolation in that, either. In Bracketville, the best team doesn’t always win. The best guards that day almost always do.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.