ST. LOUIS, Mo. — It’s ironic that Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall reflected on the 1992 Kentucky-Duke, Christian Laettner game after Marshall’s Shockers saw their undefeated season come to a devastating halt Sunday with a game-for-the-ages, 78-76, loss to the Kentucky Wildcats in the third round of the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional.
Ironic because college basketball may not have seen a game this great since that epic ‘92 East Region final.
Only this time, it was the Wildcats savoring the joy after Wichita State sophomore guard Fred VanVleet — the Shockers’ third option on the play — misfired on a pressured 3-pointer from above the key with a second left to seal the win for Kentucky.
(UK’s Julius Randle guarded the inbound pass, by the way ... a grand idea, that ...)
As a result, the No. 8 seeded Wildcats move on at 26-10 to face No. 4 seed and defending national champ Louisville (you can’t make this stuff up) Friday night in a regional semifinal in Indianapolis.
“I know what I saw,” Marshall said of Sunday’s heavyweight fight. “There was no magic shot at the end with Laettner, and (John) Pelphrey defending it and all that, but it had the makings of it with Fred’s shot in the air. I just thought this was a great college basketball game with two high-level teams. I thought they continued to make plays on both sides, back and forth, back and forth.”
“It was a joy just playing, playing this game,” said UK freshman two guard Aaron Harrison, who scored 19 points. “We had to play hard ... we had to battle.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari said the game was a testament to the character and will of his freshman-dominated “You have to understand, they have been through so much,” Calipari said. “They have been attacked, they have been bludgeoned ... ‘they can’t play, they’re not a team, you can’t do it this way.’ But they stayed together. It makes you strong. It makes you tough as nails.”
The numbers put up by Kentucky and Wichita are as breathtaking as the tension that filled Scottrade Arena throughout, starting with the Wildcats’ fortitude to crawl back from a 40-31 deficit early in the second half to a Wichita team that came in 35-0.
Kentucky took its first lead since the game’s opening seconds when sophomore forward Alex Poythress scored on a layup with 16:23 to go to put the Wildcats up 41-40.
As the second half dragged on, you had this feeling that the longer Kentucky stayed around, the more the pressure would build on the Shockers.
But Wichita State did not flinch.
The two teams traded punches with mind-bogging efficiency.
Freshman swing man James Young hit, arguably, the biggest shot of the game for Kentucky when he knocked down a 25-foot, 3-point shot from above the key to put the Wildcats on top, 73-71, with 1:41 left.
“Drew (Andrew Harrison) drove it to the hole and created a shot for me, and I just let it go with confidence,” Young said.
Then it was back and forth again, like a pinball machine, until Andrew Harrison — who played with a hyper-extended elbow — canned one of two at the free throw line to put UK up, 78-76, with seven seconds left.
Wichita got the ball to half-court before Marshall called timeout with three seconds left.
Marshall wanted to get the ball to either 6-8 senior forward Cleanthony Early — who was out of this world, scoring 31 points and grabbing seven rebounds — or to sophomore guard Ron Baker, who had 20 points and five boards. But the Wildcats’ defensive pressure left the Shockers with the long three from VanVleet.
“The one advantage we have is we can switch at every position, and we’re big,” Calipari said of the play. “We wanted the ball to go to the top. Didn’t want it to go corner and baseline drive. So we put a big guy on the ball, and Julius did a great job kind of mucking it up. The guy (VanVleet) came off the pick and roll, and we were there and made it hard.”
Calipari’s team had to play the way the UK fan base not only hoped for, but expected — long before this — and they did. The Wildcats hit 27 of 50 from the field for 54 percent, including 8 of 18 from three-point range. They were 16 of 22 at the free throw line, and out-rebounded the Shockers, 32-23.
Andrew Harrison played on adrenalin and led Kentucky with 20 points. Randle was again a beast, contributing 13 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and just one turnover in 30 minutes.
Young added 13 points and eight rebounds.
Wichita lost despite hitting 27 of 49 from the field for 55.1 percent, including 10 of 22 three-point shots.
Calipari was asked how he would have rated his team’s chances going into the game had he known the Shockers would put up numbers like those.
“I would have said it was a heckuva year,” Calipari said. “What’s happened with this team is they are now putting themselves into roles of how they have to play. Individuals are losing themselves into the team, so they’re playing better and more confident.
“The other thing is,” he added, “because we’ve been through so much throughout the year, they’re stronger. So a little lull in the game doesn’t affect them. They’ve been through all that. Their will to win, all that they’ve been up against ...”
Finally, Calipari was asked if he felt relief to win and move on.
“If wins are relief, then it’s time for me to retire,” he said. “This was great joy in seeing a group of great young men come together and start figuring this out. Listen, I was whistling and skipping out in the hallway. There is nothing about relief. We’re still playing.”