In every game this tournament, Wichita State has used the same rallying cries -- “Play Angry” and “Are you satisfied?” -- but has found different players to lean on and different ways to win.
Against Pitt’s stingy defense, the Shockers relied on rebounding -- they outrebounded the Panthers, whose 7.1 rebound margin was 13th in the nation, 37-32 -- sparkling free throw shooting (80.5 percent, compared to their 68.8 percent average), bruising physicality, their own staunch team defense and the hot hands of senior point guard Malcolm Armstead (22 points) and junior forward Cleanthony Early (21 points) to “out-Pitt Pitt,” as coach Gregg Marshall said. They beat the Panthers 73-55 with surprising ease and got a shot at top-ranked Gonzaga.
Against the Zags, they won with drama: After building a 13-point lead in the first half, then falling behind by seven with 5:31 to go in the second, the Shockers locked in down the stretch, made threes (four in the last 5:09, and 14-of-28 overall), hit free throws (six of seven in the last 39 seconds) and executed nasty defense. They held the Zags to 20 percent shooting in the last five minutes and 35.6 percent for the game, a season low, to earn their first Sweet 16 berth since 2006. The offensive stars that game? Early and freshman guard Ron Baker, who both had 16 points.
Against La Salle’s four-guard lineup Thursday, they used their superior size and physicality to command the paint. Senior forward Carl Hall sparked a 14-2 opening run by connecting on five straight baskets. He made 14 of his 16 points in the first half, while Armstead added 12 of his 18 points in the second. The Shockers’ often-overshadowed 7-footer, senior Ehimen Orukpe, had nine rebounds in eight minutes as Wichita State won 72-58.
Friday, Marshall couldn’t predict who might be the Shocker hero in a win over Ohio State. “I really don’t know who it could be as long as it’s somebody,” he said. “I know Malcolm has to play well against Aaron Craft. He can’t get killed by Craft. He has to neutralize that matchup. If he wins that matchup, good for us.”
Not only did Armstead not get killed by Craft, he had a field day against the vaunted defensive star, getting to the rim at will and hitting two of six threes on the way to 14 points in the Shockers’ 70-66 win. The rest of his line: Seven rebounds, two assists, three steals, three turnovers and four fouls. Meanwhile Craft had just two three-pointers (on 2-for-11 shooting) and three free throws for nine points. The rest of his line: Five rebounds, two assists, two steals, two turnovers and three fouls. Armstead was named the Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional, but he wasn’t the Shockers’ only star. He got crucial offensive help from Early and the team’s newest star, freshman Fred Van Vleet, who both had 12 points.