LOS ANGELES: Wichita State is headed to the Final Four, and these Shockers should be no surprise to anybody.
Not after the way they held off mighty Ohio State in the West Regional final.
Malcolm Armstead scored 14 points, Fred Van Vleet bounced in a big basket with 1 minute left, and ninth-seeded Wichita State earned its first trip to the Final Four since 1965 with a 70-66 victory over Ohio State on Saturday.
Van Vleet scored 12 points as the Shockers (30-8) followed up last week’s win over top-ranked Gonzaga with a nail-biting victory over the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-8), whose 11-game winning streak ended one game short of their second straight Final Four.
Wichita State roared to a 20-point lead with 11 minutes to play after Ohio State played an awful first half, but LaQuinton Ross scored 15 of his 19 points after halftime, leading a ferocious rally to within three points in the final minutes.
But after Tekele Cotton hit a 3-pointer with 2:20 left, VanVleet scored on a shot that bounced all over the rim before dropping. Ron Baker and Cotton hit last-minute free throws to secure the second Final Four trip in Wichita State’s history.
Wichita State is just the fifth team seeded ninth or higher to reach the Final Four since seeding began in 1979, but the second in three years following 11th-seeded VCU’s improbable run in 2011.
The Shockers are also the kings of Kansas, reaching the national semifinals after the powerful Jayhawks and Kansas State both went down.
Deshaun Thomas scored 21 points after missing nine of his first 12 shots for the Buckeyes, who made just 24 percent of their first-half shots. Aaron Craft scored nine points on 2-for-12 shooting for the Buckeyes, who dug a hole too deep to escape with their second-half rally.
But after two weeks of upsets in the wild West bracket, underdog Wichita State was an appropriate choice to cut down Staples Center’s nets. The Shockers’ well-balanced roster built that enormous lead with the same consummate team play that they’ve shown throughout the tournament.
Two sections packed with cheering Shockers fans provided all the encouragement necessary for a team that didn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and was thought to be a bubble team for an NCAA berth. Now, Wichita State is the MVC’s first Final Four team since Larry Bird led Indiana State to the title game in 1979.
Another giant awaits the Shockers in Atlanta next weekend: They’ll face the winner of today’s Midwest Regional final between Duke and Louisville.
Seven seasons after underdog George Mason crashed the Final Four and underlined college basketball’s growing parity, the Shockers are the latest smallish school to get on a big roll in the tournament. Butler made the national championship game in 2010 and 2011, and the Bulldogs were joined by that VCU team in the Final Four two years ago.
This year’s tournament included stunning wins by Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle and Harvard, but nobody kept it going longer than Wichita State.
Although the Shockers have a beautiful home arena and robust support from fans and donors in Kansas’ largest city, coach Gregg Marshall acknowledged that Wichita State’s athletic budget is a fraction of what a BCS school can spend. He hasn’t let it slow down the Shockers.
Marshall’s pregame speech to the Shockers finished with talk of cutting down the nets at Staples Center before getting on that plane back to Kansas, saying Wichita State didn’t have to play “a perfect game” to beat mighty Ohio State.
“The Mecca awaits in Atlanta,” he said.
Marshall was right, but he couldn’t have anticipated just how imperfect Ohio State would be.
The postseason-tested Buckeyes appeared calm and confident during warmups in front of their healthy fan contingent, yet they proceeded to play the first half just like NCAA newbies.
They missed their first seven shots after the opening tip in a string capped by an airballed 3-pointer from Thomas, who missed his first five overall. The junior star was labeled “a bad-shot taker and a bad-shot maker” by Marshall on Friday, but he only lived up to the first part of that billing while going 4-for-13 in the first half.
Cleanthony Early hit two 3-pointers in the opening minutes, and the Shockers opened up a 25-15 lead with 6˝ minutes left on an 8-0 run featuring 3s from role players Cotton and Demetric Williams. Ohio State got plenty of its own open shots, but the Buckeyes struggled to knock down anything — a sharp contrast from earlier in the tournament.
With the packed, yellow-clad cheering section behind their bench roaring and rolling, the Shockers stretched their lead to 13 points 1:48 before halftime.