Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall stood on the ladder and counted down to the crowd of fans in the Staples Center.
“Four,” he yelled, holding up four fingers. “Two. One.”
“Four. Two. One.”
“Four. Two. One.”
Wichita State can play angry all the way to Atlanta for the Final Four after Saturday’s 70-66 win over second-seeded Ohio State. The Shockers believe they can play angry all the way to the NCAA title.
The ninth-seeded Shockers, 30-8, finished their march through the West Regional with a tour de force of aggression, determination and spirit properly channeled. They cut down nets, posed for pictures with the regional championship trophy and quickly talked about finishing in the Georgia Dome, where they expect to cut down more nets.
“Happiness throughout my whole body,” Wichita State freshman Ron Baker said. “It’s my (20th) birthday and we’re going to the Final Four.”
The Shockers are in the Final Four. Next up is two and then one.
“It feels good, but we’re not done yet,” senior Carl Hall said. “It’s on to the next game. We’re just ready to go and make a run for this thing.”
Wichita State knocked off the top two seeds in the region on its way to its first Final Four since 1965. It will play the winner of Sunday’s Louisville-Duke game in the national semifinals on Saturday.
Coach Gregg Marshall hugged Lynn, his wife, before cutting down the nets. It took him 15 seconds to control his emotions before summing it up.
“Awesome,” he said. “It’s great. So many people were positive that first year (2007-08). I remember getting a standing ovation after we lost a game at home. Because we were playing our butts. We’ve got some of the most loyal fans. They deserve this more than you know.”
The Shockers won a school-record 30th game with 35 minutes of superb play and five holding on for dear life, earning the biggest road trip of their careers.
Ohio State, 29-8, made a late push, pressing and tiring out the Shockers. The Buckeyes got within three points before Wichita State pushed back. Tekele Cotton’s three gave Wichita State a 65-59 lead. Then his offensive rebound — beating bigger players to the ball — gave the Shockers possession. That ended with Fred VanVleet’s shot in the lane bouncing on the rim once, twice, three times before settling in for a 67-61 lead. After an Aaron Craft miss, Baker made two free throws for a 69-61 lead with 51.3 seconds to play.
“We needed a bucket,” VanVleet said. “Probably not the most pretty shot, but it went for me.”
Malcolm Armstead led Wichita State with 14 points. Early and VanVleet each added 12. Baker scored nine points, all from the foul line.
LaQuinton Ross led Ohio State with 19 points. Ohio State shot 31.1 percent for the game. It fell behind in the first half with a miserable shooting performance, eight for 33 from the field, including two for 10 from three-point range.
“Man, they ‘D’ed us up,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. “You can’t go eight for (33) in the first half (against) a great team.”
Wichita State made strong starts a trademark this tournament. It took the fight to Pittsburgh in its opener. It led top-seeded Gonzaga by 13 in the first half. It blitzed La Salle with a 17-3 start.
“We had energy from the get-go,” Cotton said. “We wanted to come out and make a statement that we weren’t going to bow down to nobody.”
The four games in the tournament have given Wichita State a national identity. Their “play angry” and “never satisfied” catchphrases have caught on, and now their attitude toward winning has become a talking point.
“We celebrate now, but we don’t even celebrate the way everybody wants us to celebrate,” junior Cleanthony Early said. “We understand that we have two more games left until the real thing. If we can accomplish that, then we can celebrate.
“After the season is over, we can still celebrate. It’s been a great year. But right now, when we’re in it and we still have moments to seize, we’ve got to be humble.”
At least in public.
“Oh, we’re gonna celebrate on this plane, brother,” Marshall said of the Shockers’ trip back to Wichita, scheduled to arrive early Sunday morning. “We might just float home.”