One of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA Tournament didn’t happen in large part because of two players, one each for Louisville and Wichita State, whose combined scoring is a solid grade-point average.
Together, Louisville guard Tim Henderson and Shockers center Ehimen Orukpe average 3.3 points. They typically don’t factor in a game’s outcome. But because they did on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament national semifinal the Cardinals are playing for the national championship on Monday.
And Wichita State is headed back to Kansas after an incredible journey into March Madness. Seeded ninth, the Missouri Valley Conference runner-up captured the imagination of college basketball by knocking down heavyweights to reach the Final Four and did it with such confidence that the Shockers never believed they were doing anything special.
From slugging Pittsburgh in the tournament opener, to dropping top-ranked Gonzaga and holding off second-seeded Ohio State to win the region, Wichita State wrote the greatest season of its proud program.
They represented well, and so did the fans, filling their corner of the Georgia Dome by the thousands. The last few Final Fours have created for another layer of excellence with Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and now Wichita State crashing the party. This is not an aberration but an expansion of talented athletes and coaches.
That ride thrilled a fan base and got a region — our region — behind the Shockers. And guess what? They’re going to be good next year. Butler played in successive Final Fours, why not coach Gregg Marshall’s bunch?
But they’ll lament Saturday’s loss, which started turning when Henderson and Orukpe got playing time for different reasons and found themselves connected by their disparate results of their shots.
The setup: The Shockers, ahead by one at halftime, sizzled to start the second half, scoring on seven of eight possessions. Louisville’s uninspired play was matched by the players’ body language as the margin grew to double digits. Wichita was taking the action to the Cardinals, and all they could do was foul.
Later, coach Rick Pitino would say he wasn’t worried.
“No, I never think we’re going to lose,” he said.
But it sure looked like it when the Wichita State lead swelled to 12 at 47-35 with about 13 minutes remaining and seven team fouls whistled on Louisville. What an advantage — in a tightly called game, Wichita would be shooting free throws on whistles the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, Louisville was getting nothing from guard Peyton Siva, and without Kevin Ware, a reserve watching from the bench while healing his broken leg, Pitino could only go to Henderson, who had scored three points since late January, to spell his starters.
What happened was, Orukpe, a 40-percent free-throw shooter, missed the front end of two one-and-ones, and after each, Henderson buried three-pointers in front of the Louisville bench.
In 42 seconds, Wichita State’s 12-point lead got sliced in half by players who typically reside at the end of the bench, and the game had changed. Much of the postgame talk centered on Luke Hancock’s 19 points and the Louisville press that finally bit into the Shockers. And those were critical components.
But this game was starting to feel epic, an enduring memory unfolding. The Shockers had the baddest team in college basketball on their heels, their shoulder slumped, and Marshall pumping his fists.
“We were confident and poised,” Wichita State point guard Malcolm Armstead said. “We were executing the game plan.”
Pitino was right. Wichita State was playing defense as if it were Marquette on steroids.
Wichita’s unraveling required the rest of the game to complete, and the outcome wasn’t sealed until a jump ball with 6 seconds remained off a Louisville missed free throw. Wichita’s Ron Baker had it, lost its balance and got tied up. The Cardinals owned the possession arrow and the Shockers, down three, lost a final chance to throw in a game-tying three-pointer.
The final buzzer sounded, and suddenly time had expired for the determined, upset-minded team, one that rode a dream to college basketball grandest stage, that played the game’s most feared team tougher than Duke or anybody else along the Cardinals’ path.
It happened because the shots fell for Louisville and not for Wichita State, especially from the players you’d least expect.