Cleanthony Early (11) celebrates with his Wichita State teammates after upsetting No. 2-seeded Ohio State to reach the FInal Four. (Jeff Gross/Getty)
LOS ANGELES – Are you sufficiently Shocked, America?
Wichita State is going to the Final Four. The ninth-seeded Shockers built a 20-point second-half lead on No. 2 seed Ohio State, watched nearly the entire thing evaporate, but ultimately held on, 70-66, to earn the school’s first Final Four berth since 1965.
“It still hasn’t hit me,” Wichita State redshirt freshman guard Ron Baker said on the court afterward as his teammates took turns cutting down the nets. “But I’m going to Atlanta next week to play in the biggest national spotlight.”
The David vs. Goliath angle of a Big Ten-Missouri Valley Elite Eight game is inevitable, but particularly so when the power school is Ohio State, national symbol of athletic wealth ($142 million-a-year revenue) and opulence (a $13 million basketball facility overhaul began last year). Buckeyes coach Thad Matta tried to downplay the disparity between his and Wichita State’s programs prior to their matchup here Saturday.
“It's not going to score us a point or get us a rebound tomorrow,” he said.
That much was clear from the opening moments. Wichita State’s cast of juco transfers, lightly recruited prospects and former walk-ons was more physical than the Buckeyes’ cast of former Top 150 recruits. The ninth-seeded Shockers routinely beat them on the glass. They blocked shots. They walled off the paint.
They “played angry,” the motto they adopted in February and the words coach Gregg Marshall shouted at his players to end a televised halftime speech.
Still, few would have guessed the Shockers would go up by 13 on the Buckeyes at halftime, 35-22, come out and then quickly extend that lead to as much as 20 early in the second half.
Wichita State asserted itself early with some hot three-point shooting, as consecutive treys by Tekele Cotton and Demetric Williams made it 25-15 with 6:29 left in the first half. But it was the Shockers’ interior play that mattered more. While Buckeyes star DeShaun Thomas struggled miserably with his jumper and point guard Aaron Craft found it nearly impossible to drive, Shockers forward Carl Hall slashed to the basket on offense and notched three blocks on the other end.
Trailing 56-36 with 11:02 left, Ohio State gradually fought its way back, outscoring the Shockers 16-4 over the next seven minutes. Despite picking up his fourth foul with 7:38 left, Thomas (21 points despite 0-of-6 on three-pointers) came alive offensively, and, just like the past two games, LaQuinton Ross (19 points) proved an offensive spark. As the lead tightened, the previously smooth-operating Shockers started committing needless turnovers and silly fouls. Ohio Sate finally cut it to single digits, 60-52, on a tip-in by Shannon Scott with 4:02 left, and was back within a single basket, 62-59, with 2:48 left.
But with ultra-deep Wichita State, you never know who will step up with the most important plays of the game. In this case, Cotton, a 6.3-points-per-game scorer, drained a three from the wing to push the margin back to 65-59. Shortly thereafter, he grabbed a huge offensive rebound that set up another unlikely hero, freshman backup point guard Fred VanVleet for a jumper to make it 67-61 with one minute left. Craft, who finished a miserable 2-of-12, missed a three-pointer on the other end, and it was apparent the Shockers would hold on.
Wichita State becomes the first Final Four team from the Missouri Valley since Larry Bird-led Indiana State in 1979. It will meet the winner of Sunday’s Louisville-Duke showdown next weekend in Atlanta.
“We’re the only ones that can stop us, and we know that” a beaming Cleanthony Early (12 points) said on the court afterward. “Let them talk. The critics are going to be critics … we always want to be better than they think we can be.”
Yet again, they were.