The college basketball world kept waiting for the stage to get too big, for the scene to overwhelm Wichita State.
It never did, even as the lead slipped away in Saturday’s NCAA national semifinal in the Georgia Dome.
The ninth-seeded Shockers proved they belonged in the Final Four, which must make what happened even more painful. The Shockers controlled most of the game, and a spot in Monday’s championship game was just a few minutes away.
So close to playing for the school’s first NCAA basketball title.
“We felt like we had the game won,” Shockers guard Fred VanVleet said.
Louisville, however, ended the dream with a closing push that wore down the Shockers. The Cardinals, down 12 in the second half, defeated Wichita State 72-68.
Louisville, 34-5, plays in Monday’s title game in search of the school’s third NCAA title. Wichita State, 30-9, must be satisfied with a history-making run that came up a few turnovers and few minutes short of playing for the championship.
“This one’s especially hard because of the run we went on,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “This may be the most important game that I’ll ever coach. It’s probably the most important that Wichita State’s ever played in.”
The Shockers lived up to that for more than 30 minutes. For most of the game, Wichita State made Louisville’s press look like little more than a nuisance. The Shockers calmly worked the ball upcourt, foiling the pressure with several ball handlers. The Shockers committed four turnovers in the game’s first 7 minutes, but they didn’t commit another one until 7 minutes remained.
“Pressing teams have to stay in there,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We started making some steals, picking up the heat.”
Cleanthony Early led Wichita State with 24 points, and Carl Hall added 13. Malcolm Armstead, who averaged 15.5 points in four tournament games, scored two points and missed nine of 10 shots.
Russ Smith led Louisville with 21 points. Luke Hancock added 20, making three of five threes. He scored 14 points in the second half.
Wichita State led by 12 points with 13:36 remaining, and the Cardinals cut that lead in half in just more than a minute. The Shockers pushed it back to eight points, but Louisville kept coming. The Cardinals trailed 55-53 when three players engulfed Hall and knocked the ball away, leading to a three-pointer by Hancock for a 56-55 lead with 6:30 remaining.
The Cardinals forced seven turnovers in the final 7 minutes and scored nine points off those turnovers.
“We made our run late,” Louisville guard Peyton Siva said. “That’s the trademark of our team.”
The Cardinals turned it over to Hancock in the final minutes. His three-pointer gave them a 65-60 lead at the 2-minute mark. His driving layup restored a five-point edge at 67-62.
He also made one of the game’s biggest defensive plays by tying up Ron Baker, after a missed free throw, with 6.3 seconds remaining. The possession arrow went Louisville’s way, denying Wichita State the ball down three points.
Baker, who rebounded and needed to dribble to gain his balance, thought he got rid of the ball to Armstead in time to avoid the jump ball. The referees disagreed, and the Cardinals inbounded the ball to Smith, who made a free throw with 4.9 seconds left.
Early came up big on the biggest stage. He grabbed 10 rebounds and scored 15 of his points in the second half. In the final minutes, he kept the Shockers close with his offensive rebounding.
His tip made it 67-64. Smith made a foul shot for a 68-64 lead with 45 seconds remaining. Early tipped in another miss to make it 68-66 with 31.6 seconds to play. Smith made two more free throws with 29.9 seconds to play for a four-point edge. Baker missed an off-balance three and Hall rebounded and scored to cut the score to 70-68.