Commentary

Fowler: Wichita State close, but can’t pull off shocker

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comApril 6, 2013 

— It was monumental. It was extraordinary.

And then it was gone.

No. 9 seed Wichita State was close to pulling off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history Saturday night in the Final Four, leading No. 1 seed Louisville for most of the game and by as many as 12 points in the second half.

And then Louisville stormed back, winning 72-68, and the chance for this NCAA tournament to have an incredibly unlikely champion was over. The basketball world wobbled on its axis but ultimately righted itself, much to the chagrin of upset-loving fans everywhere.

Former Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall – now the head man at Wichita State – was as deflated as I’ve ever seen him afterward.

“This may be the most important basketball game that I’ll ever coach,” Marshall said. “It’s definitely the most important to date, and it’s probably the most important that Wichita State has ever played in. It’s tough.”

The Shockers had most of the enormous crowd of around 74,000 at the Georgia Dome on their side. They were whipping Louisville’s vaunted full-court press for layups. At halftime, Marshall told his team in an address televised by CBS the “noose” would tighten around Louisville if Wichita State kept up its strong play.

And for awhile it seemed like that was happening. Marshall had exulted in that same halftime speech that his team hadn’t even played well and was still ahead by a point.

But Louisville is the tournament’s No.1 overall seed for a reason, and so the first national semifinal game demonstrated both the gorgeousness and the brutality of the NCAA tournament. Ask Davidson for a refresher course if you must – one minute you have a lead and an upset in hand, the next you don’t.

Wichita State was undone by a little-known Louisville reserve named Tim Henderson who hit a couple of 3-pointers, a turnover-ridden stretch in the second half and a rebound that Louisville’s Luke Hancock turned into a controversial jump ball with eight seconds to go. The alternating possession went to Louisville after that call, and that was it.

A great upset requires 40 minutes of great play by the underdog. Wichita State fell about five minutes short. The Shockers scared the Cardinals but could not beat them.

Marshall called it “one incredible ride” afterward, saying his team had proved it could play with the best.

And that’s true. Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early had a remarkable game, scoring 24 points and almost willing his team to victory late. But Louisville’s Russ Smith (21 points) and Hancock (20 points) kept making play after play.

The Shockers started the game with an 8-0 burst, showing early that Louisville wasn’t going to win this game by 22 points like the Cardinals did against Duke. Wichita State shut Louisville center Gorgui Dieng completely out – he had zero points – and also held down Louisville guard Peyton Siva (1-for-9 from the field.). But Louisville has so many options that Wichita State couldn’t guard them all.

Said Louisville coach Rick Pitino: “There’s always a part of you that looks at the other team and says, ‘They played their hearts out. They were superb. And they lost.’”

The Shockers started turning the ball over a lot late after hardly turning it over at all early. Marshall gave Louisville’s fearsome press credit and said his team as a whole played OK against it.

“We had 11 turnovers, so that’s not bad,” he Marshall said.

Louisville moved onto the final, where the Cardinals will be favored once again. And Wichita State must go back home to Kansas, knowing that “not bad” isn’t quite good enough.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler.

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