ATLANTA — Fred VanVleet wasn’t sure what he was supposed to feel.
By RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle
Hurting from the loss.
Proud that Wichita State had come so far and gone so deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Excited about next season.
Sad because there won’t be a next season for the seniors.
He sank deep into his corner locker Saturday night after the Shockers’ 72-68 national semifinal loss to Louisville.
“It’s hard to describe how I feel,” VanVleet said. “I just know this stings. Louisville is a great team, but …”
His voice trailed off before he added, “We had a bumpy regular season, but then we got hot. Obviously we didn’t make the plays tonight, so that will give us motivation for next year. It’s been a great ride.”
The ninth-seed Shockers pushed Louisville, the tournament’s overall top seed, to the brink. If Wichita State had won, it would have been the first No. 9 seed — and lowest seed of any kind — to reach the title game.
Instead, the Shockers were left to try and put it in perspective. Not easy to do at such a moment. But they tried.
“This is just the start, this is just the start,” said junior forward Chadrack Lufile. “We lost five seniors last year, and no one thought we would do this.
“Now we have guys coming back. We’ll come back stronger. The longer you are together, the stronger you are.”
Lufile, who likely will play a bigger role next season, spoke with determination and confidence.
Most of the Shockers spoke about conflicting emotions.
For senior Ehimen Orukpe, Saturday was his last chance as a Shocker.
“I’m still trying to digest this,” he said. “I’ll have to wait until I get back home.
“Part of me is happy, but part of me says, darn, we should’ve won this.”
It certainly felt like it when the Shockers had a 12-point lead with just over 13 minutes left after Cleanthony Early hit a three-pointer.
“We came out with a lot of energy,” Wichita State sophomore guard Tekele Cotton said.
But the Cardinals found theirs and closed fast.
“It never came down to us thinking we had it won,” VanVleet said. “It was a dog fight all the way. I don’t think most of us even knew we had a 12-point lead.”
In the tournament, freshman Ron Baker became known to the nation as the kid from Scott City, a two-stoplight town in western Kansas.
For Baker, the tournament left him both aching and thirsty for more.
“Losing is always disappointing,” Baker said. “It’s been a great, great ride.
“We should all walk out of here with our head high. I know I will.”