ST. LOUIS -- The distance between 36-0 and 35-1 was 25 feet. A three-pointer from two steps beyond the key left Fred VanVleet's right hand with 1.7 seconds remaining and the Scottrade Center scoreboard reading Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76. The shot's path would determine whether the No. 1-seeded Shockers would continue their pursuit of perfection or if the No. 8-seeded Wildcats would advance to the Sweet 16. A ball was in the air, and there were two possible outcomes.
In the 38-hour buildup to Sunday's game -- which might have been the greatest round-of-32 matchup in the history of the expanded NCAA tournament -- it was subjected to two-outcome hype: That Wichita would either wipe out criticism that its unbeaten season was too much the product of a mediocre schedule; or that preseason No. 1 Kentucky, with its greatest-on-paper recruiting class of all-time, would save a season that was on the verge of falling apart in early March.
What happened was not one outcome or the other. It was both. It was that these teams met too early in the bracket and waged a heavyweight fight fit for a Final Four. It was 40 minutes of punches and counter-punches and clutch shot-making and almost unbearable tension. It was the best NCAA tournament game since last year's Louisville-Michigan final, and whereas that was a classic that petered out in the final minute, this one had all that plus an ending: Wichita State running a sideline out-of-bounds set near its own bench with 3.2 seconds left, trailing by two.
The play was called Havlicek, after the Celtics great, and it had three options. Inbounder Tekele Cotton could throw a lob to Cleanthony Early, the senior forward who already had 31 points and would be running toward the rim off a double screen. Or Cotton could hit Ron Baker on a curl towards the near sideline for a three. Neither of those were open, so VanVleet popped out beyond the top of the key, received the pass, and dribbled off a high ballscreen from Darius Carter.
VanVleet is a 5-11 sophomore point guard with a limited vertical. He was ignored by major-conference schools while playing high school ball in Rockford, Ill., but was this season's Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and serves as the steady, mature leader of the Shockers. The hand and arm in his line of vision as he rose to shoot was that of Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot sophomore center with a spectacular vertical. Kentucky made him a recruiting priority out of Olathe, Kansas, and he's projected as a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
When VanVleet was asked, the previous day, if he ever envied the attention the Kentucky kids received, he said, "I haven't been a jealous guy at any point in my life. I wouldn't change anything." He was fine with toiling in obscurity, because he figured things would eventually even out. That hype would be less important than what happened on the floor, when he had the ball in his hands.
"We are mindful that true opportunity comes when men and mountains meet."
When Wichita State's chaplain and "character coach," Steve Dickie, blessed the team's Saturday-night dinner, he opened with that line. Upon first seeing the bracket on Selection Sunday, the Shockers had viewed this potential Kentucky game not as a punishment but an opportunity. They could silence the Wichita-didn't-play-anybody crowd by the end of the tournament's first weekend, but to do so they'd have to overcome a mountainous, monstrous front line of Cauley-Stein, 7-foot Dakari Johnson and 6-9 Julius Randle, all of whom have futures in the NBA. Scouting the Wildcats was simple because they run so few set plays, said Wichita's associate head coach, Chris Jans, but stopping them from dominating the glass -- where they were the best team in the bracket in offensive rebounding percentage -- would not be easy.
"They are coming to the offensive glass," Jans told the team during a film session on Saturday. "It's going to be a war down there."
After viewing clip after clip of Randle destroying opponents on the offensive boards, and seeing UK's front line in person at the Scottrade Center on Thursday and Friday, head coach Gregg Marshall knew it was a daunting assignment. Between Kentucky's size and all the public's doubts about whether Wichita was a true title contender, Marshall said on Sunday morning, "I'm a No. 1 seed and I feel like David."
In his final pregame speech on Sunday, Marshall asked the Shockers if they were satisfied with being 35-0, which in itself was historic. No other team in college basketball history had made it that far undefeated.
"Are we satisfied that everybody's saying that we're not going to win this game?" he said. "That hey, it was a nice little story, but we're not going to beat Kentucky? I say, if they change the uniforms, and gave us Kentucky across our uniforms, and gave Kentucky whatever team, they would be talking about us right now as one of the best college basketball teams in the history of this great game. Do you hear anybody saying that? No. Because they don't expect you to come out and do these things. They don't expect you to be able to beat the No. 1 [team] in the country in the preseason. We have proven all year long that we can do this. This is an unbelievable opportunity. You've gotta understand if you want to be David, or Goliath, or both."
Two Goliaths showed up at the Scottrade Center: The near-peak version of Wichita State, which we had seen much of the season, and the peak version of Kentucky, which we had not seen all that often. Early on, the Shockers did the things that were hammered home in their scouting report. They guarded without fouling, grabbed defensive boards and got out in transition, where the Wildcats' defense was weakest. Two fastbreak buckets by Cleanthony Early -- one at 5:14, set up by a Chadrack Lufile defensive board and a VanVleet upcourt pass, and another at 0:48, set up by a VanVleet steal -- helped them take a 37-31 lead into halftime.
During the players-only portion of halftime, VanVleet is their source of wisdom, and he urged them: "Stay focused. This ain't gonna be easy." Early is their constant chatterbox, and he added, "It's still a fight, trust me. Round 2. Do not take this s--- lightly. ... Don't nobody expect us to be competing like this. Let's show them more."
Round 2, otherwise known as the second half, was when the game elevated itself to classic status. Randle, Kentucky's 260-pound bully of a freshman, only had two points in the first half but exploded for five more in the first 150 seconds of the second. Soon, Wichita's lead was whittled to 40-39. With 16:32 left, they briefly lost their leader, when VanVleet committed a charge in the open court and collapsed to the floor, holding his head, after a collision with Wildcats freshman Aaron Harrison.
It was VanVleet's third foul and it was ugly. Nine seconds after he took a brief respite on the bench, Kentucky took the lead at 41-40. The teams punched back and forth and back and forth; the score swung to 46-43 Wichita, 53-49 Kentucky, 69-64 Wichita, 75-71 Kentucky. Baker, who finished with 20 points and four threes, matched blows with the Harrison twins, who were finally playing like fully realized versions of the guards who arrived at Kentucky with so much promise this summer.
The brothers Harrison bulled their way to the free-throw line over and over, combining for 39 points and 10-of-13 shooting from the stripe. They kept Early from completely stealing the show when he went off for a barrage of threes and face-up twos, going 8-for-11 from the field in the second half and sending his draft stock skyrocketing. He celebrated one fastbreak layup with an airplane dance and yapped more than anyone on the floor, even trying to rattle Randle before he stepped to the line for huge free throws with 22 seconds left and the score 75-74 in Kentucky's favor. ("I like to talk," Early had said on Friday, "so I have to walk even harder.")
Randle, unbothered, made both of his free throws to open a three-point lead. Early, continuing to walk the walk, answered with an offensive board on the other end, was fouled with 9.8 seconds left, and made both of his free throws to cut Kentucky's advantage to 77-76. Wildcats coach John Calipari had planned to employ the foul-up-three strategy had Andrew Harrison hit two free throws with seven seconds left. But Harrison missed the second one, setting up Wichita's final play.
The ball went to VanVleet, who had not attempted a shot since the 17:59 mark of the second half. For the early part of that stretch he was dazed from his collision, and later he was content to feed the hot hand of Early. In this instance there was no time to pass. VanVleet came off Carter's screen and released a three with a high enough arc to clear Cauley-Stein's right hand.
The shot traveled those 25 feet, the distance between 36-0 and 35-1. It hit the back of the rim with a thud, and fell off to the right as time expired. As Kentucky broke into a wild celebration, Baker went up to VanVleet -- the guy the Shockers entrusted with their biggest decisions all season -- and said, "I didn't want anybody else taking that final shot. We would live with that every time."
Baker would not have changed anything, except for the outcome.
When one shot is the difference between sustaining perfection and ending seasons and college careers, the aftermath can be heartrending. Marshall consoled his daughter, Maggie, outside the locker room. He lamented that they couldn't guard the free-throw line, where Kentucky had been nearly perfect down the stretch. Coaches and players took seats and slumped forward in silence. Heads were counted for a final speech and one was missing.
Lufile, a 6-9 senior, had shut himself in the bathroom. He was inconsolable. "Leave me alone!" he yelled, when a staff member tried to coax him out. "Close the door." Early and Baker eventually went in to plead with him. "We were gonna win this whole s---!" Lufile could be heard saying, and he still wouldn't come out.
Heads in the locker room started turning toward one guy: VanVleet. He was still leaning back in his locker, processing the final shot, but now he was being summoned for his final duty as their floor general. He got up. He walked across the room and into the bathroom. He soon came out with Early and Baker -- and Lufile.
"This don't take away from nothing we've been doing all year," VanVleet said to the team. "Everybody's got futures in this. ... This is not ending. Do it together like we got here together. You win together, you lose together."
He ceded the floor to Marshall. The coach thanked his seniors; he talked about them finishing their degrees and going pro; he said he felt as bad as anyone in the room, and wished he could have done something more. One of the last things he told them was, "If we're sad, we're sad because it's over. The season is over. OK? That's it. Not because of the way we played, not because of anything else but the season is over. Because it was so much fun and such a ride and it's over."
The ball was in the air, and then it was over. The 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers were safe as the last team to run the table unbeaten. Wichita State finished five wins short, but not without a record-breaking ride, and in its farewell, validation on a national stage in a game no one wanted to end. The Shockers and Kentucky gave us the greatest 40 minutes of this NCAA tournament. The price was history.