The magical ride is over for the Wichita State Shockers. Fred VanVleet’s 3-pointer at the buzzer went wide left and ended the dream of a perfect season five games short. This game was a war, it was without doubt one of the best college basketball games of the year. Unfortunately, someone had to lose, and today the Shockers were one play short of winning the game. They lost to Kentucky Wildcats, 78-76, but won the respect of the nation in the process.
No one should doubt Wichita State. They deserved that No. 1 Seed and played as one today. There will be some who doubt the Shockers, but they played a complete game on both ends of the court. No one knew the Shockers skill better than the winning coach. "You all understand this was an Elite 8 game," said Kentucky Head coach John Calipari. "This was an Elite 8 game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four, that's what this was."
The Kentucky Wildcats were just one play better than Wichita today. CBS commentator Greg Anthony even said this game was the "best game he ever called." The Shockers came up one play short.
Wichita State and Kentucky went toe-to-toe in the first half. Both teams battled each other, when one team would take a slight edge, the other team would respond. Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison were electric early in this game and the Shockers countered with Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker.
There was a question as to whether Andrew was going to play in this game, but he played through his elbow injury and was the key difference in the Wildcats victory on Sunday. He and his brother made 11 of UK’s first 16 points, but Baker and Early were not fazed by the Harrison twins.
Early played an amazing game today. This game made him a first round pick in the NBA Draft. His inside and outside game were phenomenal. He hit his first 3-point to give the Shockers a 10-8 lead, but Aaron Harrison responded with a 3-pointer of his own to reclaim the lead for Kentucky. The Wildcats held a 16-13 lead at the second media timeout, but most people in the crowd was realizing how special this game could become.
After the media timeout, WSU went on a 7-0 run that forced the Cats to call a timeout as the Shockers reclaimed a 22-19 lead with 9:38 left in the first half. They continued to hold a 5 to 9-point for the rest of the first half. Kentucky tried to shift the momentum back to them on a Willie Cauley-Stein dunk, but the Shockers responded with the dunk of the year.
The building was not ready for this dunk, press row exploded when this dunk happened. Aaron Harrison had the ball, but it was taken from him by VanVleet. VanVleet then noticed a streaking Early on the right side of the floor and made an incredible pass to Early through the Cats defenders. Early rose up and had a powerful one-handed jam knocking down Cauley-Stein in the process. It was a play that showed the Shockers lack of fear against a major teams and one of the numerous signs that they were an elite team this season.
The Shockers extended the lead to nine points with 47 seconds left in the first half until James Young hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the first half to cut the Shockers advantage down to 6-points going into halftime.
The first half was unbelievable for both teams. Each team shot 54 percent from the field in the half. While Kentucky out rebounded the Shockers, amazingly, the Shockers held an 20-14 advantage for points in the paint. The lead changed 7 times in the first half. The Shockers opened the second half with an Early 3-pointer, but Kentucky responded.
The Cats went on a 10-0 run to reclaim a 41-40 lead, but the Shockers responded when Baker made a layup and was fouled to give the Shockers the lead once again. The game was going back and forth after that point. Kentucky would make a play and then Wichita State would response or vice-versa. Kentucky seemed to gain some momentum on a Cauley-Stein alley-oop to claim a 4-point lead, but again the Shockers responded again.
After Kentucky gained some momentum, Early decided to take the game over. Early always seems to response in the biggest situations like the Final Four game against Louisville. He was the best individual player on the court today. He was clicking on all cylinders as he scored 17 of the final 23 points for the Shockers. He singlehandedly kept the Shockers in the game during the second half, but Kentucky was able to keep up with Early’s hot streak.
"I just feel like I am always there when my team needs me, and they always find me whenever they need me," said Early on his incredible performance. "And we feed off each other in positive ways."
The play that changed the game was a James Young 3-pointer with 1:40 left in the second half to give the Wildcats a 73-71 lead. They extended the lead to 4, but the Shockers responded yet again with a Ron Baker 3-pointer to cut the Cats lead to 1 point with 30 seconds left in the game.
After both teams made two free throws. The Shockers fouled Andrew Harrison , pressing the freshman to make some free throws. He made the first, but missed the second and WSU Head coach Gregg Marshall called a timeout with three seconds left to set up a final play.
Marshall said that he had "three options" on the final play of the game. The first option was getting the ball to Early, the second option was getting the ball to Baker. However, those two options were denied by Kentucky, and on a switch, the ball was given to VanVleet who lofted a shot, but missed to end the game and the Shockers’ magical run.
"I thought it was a fantastic basketball game. I thought both teams made tremendous plays, back and forth and back and forth," said Marshall. "And in the end they made one more play. And the last shot for us did not go that would have tied it or won it, depending on where he took it from, Fred. But just excited to be sitting here with these gentlemen and the joy that they brought us all year long will live with me forever."
The Shockers were 35-0 until this game. They had one of the best seasons in college basketball, it ended short of their ultimate goal, but they have nothing to be ashamed of this season. They have earned the respect of the nation today, Shockers basketball is a force to be reckon with for years to come and everyone in the nation should salute their incredible effort and team.