ATLANTA -- For the last fortnight Steve Dickie, Wichita State's chaplain and character coach, had been racking his brain for an appropriate losing prayer to share with the team when the season finally ended. "But then they kept winning, and I didn't have to," says Dickie.
In the end, when he and the Shocker players and coaches stood in a circle in their Georgia Dome locker room with their arms wrapped around each other in the wake of Louisville's come-from-behind 72-68 national semifinal victory on Saturday, Dickie's prayer had the same theme as his prayers at the end of the wins against Pitt, Gonzaga, LaSalle and Ohio State: Thankfulness. As players and coaches cast their wet eyes downward, Dickie spoke of thanking God for the season, for each other and for the privilege of just being there. "Thankfulness has been a motto of ours all season," says Dickie.
Then Coach Gregg Marshall added his thanks and repeated another Shocker motto that was just as true in defeat as it had been in victory: "You belong." Louisville coach Rick Pitino had said as much, telling Marshall after the game, "You're the best team we've played all season."
Marshall had been repeating that line every pregame and every post game throughout the nine-seed Shockers' surprising run through the West Region. Before the Louisville game, he had written it in red ink on the dry erase board, right under the other game, "Keys": Intensity on D/glass; movement /man ball; confidence/ aggressive; U belong!!!
The Shockers never doubted it, but coming into this game they hadn't gathered much of a bandwagon. Las Vegas bookies had made Louisville a 10-point favorite while prognosticator Nate Silver gave the Shockers a measly 4.7 percent chance of winning the tournament. But attitudes started changing about three and half minutes into the game, when the Shockers took an 8-0 lead, earning themselves a shoutout tweet from former Laker coach Phil Jackson: "Good start for the wheat boys."
All summer the Shockers had prepared for this game, or rather, for a game against the closest approximation of Louisville pressure they would encounter this season, VCU, their second opponent of the season. They had practiced four-on-three drills, two on one drills, and a lot of passing, pivots and running the baseline to inbounds the ball. As they worked out, trying to figure out how nine new faces would replace the five seniors, the four starters and the 75 percent of the scoring the Shockers had just lost, assistant coach Chris Jans and his fellow coaches started to feel "quietly giddy" about the possibilities this team presented. "We knew we wouldn't be highly ranked," says Jans. "But we thought we could be pretty good." They beat VCU 53-51 on Nov. 13 as part of an 9-0 start. In December three starters, Carl Hall, Ron Baker and Even Wessel, went down with injuries that would sideline them for multiple games. But the rest of the team rallied to extend the start to 19-2. A 7-6 finish did little to tarnish their swagger. "They always had confidence," says Marshall. "Always."
For 33 minutes against Louisville, the Shockers were the more confident team, the more poised team, the better team. Deploying three ball handlers and a few well-placed baseball throws, they made hash of the Cardinals' vaunted press; indeed, they went without a turnover for 26 minutes. On the other end, they packed the paint and forced the Cardinals to take jump shots that clanged off the rim, one after another. With 13:36 to go in the second half, the Shockers' Cleanthony Early hit a three-pointer that put the Shockers up 47-35.They didn't just belong on the Georgia Dome court, they owned it. Suddenly it seemed possible that a seed as low as nine, from a midmajor conference, no less, could win this tournament. If Wichita State could knock off the number one team in the country (Gonzaga); the Big Ten tournament champs (Ohio State) and the top overall seed ( Louisville), why couldn't they topple whoever came next, Syracuse or Michigan?
But then Louisville walk-on Tim Henderson made back-to-back three-pointers -- bringing his season three-point total to six -- to cut the lead to six, and the Shockers' opportunity to stretch the lead slipped away. With seven minutes to go, the Cardinals had shrunk their deficit to two. Then at last, the Shockers started to feel the pressure, and their turnovers came in a rush -- one by senior forward Hall, one half a minute later by freshman point guard Fred Van Vleet-a flurry of five in seven possessions. Then came the bad luck: with the Shockers down 71-68 with 6.3 seconds to go, a controversial jump ball call gave possession to the Cardinals, who made a free throw for the final four-point margin. Sitting deep inside a corner locker Van Vleet tried to explain the sudden shift in momentum. "There's no trick or magic to it," he said. "They had been doing the same thing all game. Plays go your way one time, then there are 50-50 balls...that's the thing with their pressure. They (forced turnovers) at the right time."
The players wouldn't admit it, but Jans thought the Cardinals' conditioning had started to wear his players down. "They pressed us all game," said Jans, "They are used to playing that way and we're not used to playing that way. We got a half step slow, a little lethargic. They started making some threes. I thought [Henderson's] two threes were huge turning points in the game."
Van Vleet admitted it would have been easier, if embarrassing, to lose by a large margin than such a small one. "When you have the biggest opportunity of your life at your fingertips, it feels like somebody cut your arm off and you can't reach it," he said. "The worst part was being that close. They're a great team but they weren't that much better than us tonight. Just good enough to beat us just by a couple points. That hurts to be so close and not be able to get it done."
A few lockers over Early, who had a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds, agreed. "It hurts," he said as the iphone in his hand blurted out text message alerts. "A couple of guys were crying and a couple of coaches were crying. It's like a girlfriend breaking up with you. I never had a girlfriend break up with me, but now I think I know what it probably feels like."
However, he added, "I could always hold my head high because no one expected us to be here. We proved a lot of people wrong. The grind doesn't stop. We got an opportunity to continue to prove people wrong."
Outside the locker room, Marshall, who has called this season of newcomers and injuries "the most challenging of my 15 years as a head coach," got up from the golf cart that had ferried him from the press conference and gave the now completed season a new spin. "It has been a glorious ride," he said. "I can't think of a better group of young people to be with on this type of run. They're fun; they are a joy to coach." And then, after rehashing the last few minutes and the missed opportunities they held, he said, " I thought we had it. I thought we were really going to pull it out against a great team."
He talked about how overwhelming it was to arrive at the Georgia Dome on Thursday, the vastness of the seats and the space. "When the ball was tossed, it was basketball," he said. "Our guys played like that. That's what I'm so proud of. They didn't back down, they didn't cower, they played to win. And they thought they could win a national championship."
After watching their performance against the top-seed in the tournament, the viewing public surely thought the same thing.