FOX Sports Exclusive
Just the beginning for Shockers?
The team had given everything it had to give, but it came up just short. Wichita State hadn’t played a perfect game, not by any means: The Shockers missed too many open shots, they didn’t close the game out when they had the chance, they coughed up too many crucial turnovers late.
But against Louisville, on this stage, against these odds, this was as close to a perfect game as you could get. Considering the Shockers were an unheralded 9-seed who once seemed in danger of missing the tournament, taking the No. 1 overall seed to the brink was more than anyone expected. They went 26 minutes and 21 seconds without a turnover against the vaunted Louisville press. They only turned the ball over 11 times on the game, the lowest turnover total against Louisville in nearly two seasons. They kept it a one-possession game with a chance to tie with less than 10 seconds left, until an unfortunate possession arrow pointed the wrong way.
But in the end, they lost, 72-68, ending one of the biggest upset bids in Final Four history.
The team shook hands with the Cardinals, and Ron Baker, whose end-of-game turnover cost the Shockers a shot to tie it up, held his hands to his face. The Shockers filed past the Syracuse band, which was already in place for the second game of the night, and into the locker room. For 10 minutes, for 15 minutes, for longer, the doors remained closed.
Inside, written on a whiteboard in red marker, were head coach Gregg Marshall’s rallying cries for this team’s improbable run: "Play angry." "Are you satisfied?" And then, on the bottom of the whiteboard, the fourth of Marshall’s four keys to this game, "U Belong!!!"
Behind those closed doors, as scores of media waited outside to record their heartbreak, Marshall told his team — the team no one thought would make it to this point — that he was so, so proud of it.
"You guys belonged here," Marshall told his men.
The door opened, and the assembled media stopped its chatter and hushed. This was what it looked like when the most inspiring David-over-Goliath story of this tournament came to a halt. As Marshall and four of his players squeezed into two golf carts and were driven to the interview room, you’d think they’d all be hanging their heads.
"Grinding don’t stop, baby!" yelled forward Cleanthony Early, who’d scored 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and kept this Shocker team right there in the final few minutes.
Inside the locker room, players replayed just how close they were.
It was a remarkable game. In a game that would have been the biggest gambling upset in Final Four history — Louisville was a 10.5-point favorite — it was Wichita State that seemed in control, at least until the final few minutes when the turnovers started to mount. It was the slower Wichita State tempo that dictated this game’s pace. With calm ball-handling by guards Malcolm Armstead and Fred VanVleet, plus a few well-placed full-court heaves, Wichita State rendered the Louisville press mostly irrelevant. The Shockers outrebounded and outworked Louisville most of the game. The Shockers had held four of Louisville’s five starters to two points and zero made field goals in the first half.
In all honesty, the Shockers should have won — and not just because of the odd second-half double-foul call that could have been a flagrant one on Louisville, or the ref’s quick trigger finger on the late-game jump-ball call. They simply played better, at least until the last 10 minutes, when Louisville’s superior conditioning set in. If it weren’t for walk-on Louisville guard Tim Henderson hitting two straight second-half 3-pointers — Henderson had hit four 3-pointers all year before replacing backup point guard Kevin Ware after Ware’s broken leg in the Elite Eight — Wichita State had this game out of reach.
"It seemed like they got more fresh, if you will, as the game went on, and we don’t see that very often," Wichita State associate head coach Chris Jans, whose eyes were rimmed with tears, told FOXSports.com. "Painful. These kids believed. We believe we were going to win the game. During the game, our confidence rose. To be up 12 with (13) minutes left in the game, and the right to play for the national championship on the line, it kind of slipped through the cracks a little bit. It’s hard to deal with."
Across the room, VanVleet leaned against the cement wall beside of his locker. Minutes before, there were tears in this locker room, but now it was a place filled mostly with regret about just how close they actually had come. Kansas governor Sam Brownback stood near the entrance and spoke about the never-give-up allegory of this Wichita State team. VanVleet replayed his two late-game turnovers.
"Biggest opportunity of your life," he told FOXSports.com. "You got it at your fingertips. You feel like somebody cut your arm off, and you can’t reach it. The worst part about it was just being that close. ...They were a great team, but they weren’t that much better than us tonight. They were just good enough to beat us. That hurts."
A short golf-cart ride away, players and head coaches for both teams sat at a podium. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said Wichita State was the best team he’s faced the past two seasons. Pitino talked about how Louisville “dug in” when its top players weren’t playing their best, and patted the back of game MVP Luke Hancock, whose 20 points and many heady plays saved the day for Louisville.
For Marshall, after a game that couldn’t be more heartbreaking, he didn’t focus on the regrets and the missed opportunities and the questionable calls. He did what a great coach does: he spoke about the bigger journey.
"This may be the most important basketball game that I’ll ever coach," he said. "It’s probably the most important that Wichita State’s ever played in. It’s tough, because it’s such a group of young men in that locker room that you just grow to love, you know? They’re fun to coach. They’re great character kids. They’re tough as nails, tough as nails.
"But we didn’t say goodbye," Marshall said. "We didn’t say, 'This is it.' This is just a beginning."
More Stories From Reid Forgrave