This was a “wonderful” and “fantastic” game, the coach said, after the latest moment of the “magic carpet ride” his players created.
“The joy that they brought us all year long,” he added, “will live with me forever.”
These aren’t the sorts of thoughts the coach of a losing team usually can muster in the immediate throes of an excruciating loss.
But the anguish notwithstanding, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall recognized the power of the moment after his top-seeded Shockers fell 78-76 to No. 8 seed Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.
Anyone privileged to be in the Scottrade Center felt it, too, from the game’s brisk and intense start through its punishing back-and-forth, to its suspenseful end with Fred VanVleet’s shot on trajectory to win the game or not.
“We executed our final play of the game to perfection,” Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. “We got our MVP the ball, and what else could you have done?
“It would have been remembered forever.”
It will be, anyway, as the last thrill of a clash that was a tribute to the game.
Ask the thousands of Wichita State fans who were there, including the main block that literally never sat during game action, and cheered wildly for the team all afternoon.
Ask even the ever-skeptical media, who were left thinking of the best NCAA games of our time and gushed via Twitter as the teams stayed Velcroed to each other throughout.
To Marshall, it evoked Duke-Kentucky 1992, aka the Christian Laettner game.
It had the makings of that, Marshall said, with VanVleet’s shot in the air.
When it didn’t fall, Baker felt a sensation that “burnt my heart a little bit.”
Then he ran to VanVleet and told him, “That was a great shot, and we would live with that every time.”
Then they went through a handshake line with Kentucky that reverently reflected the game. It was a slow shuffle, with genuine congratulations and consolations.
Kentucky coach John Calipari told Marshall what he’d done with this team to keep it undefeated so long was “nothing short of miraculous.”
UK’s Julius Randle told Chadrack Lufile to keep his head up. Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison told Baker he was “a bad, bad, bad boy,” apparently modern parlance for “great game,” and Baker told him the same.
They had been fierce opponents, of course, but they also became part of something bigger than themselves, and maybe bigger than the bracketing said.
“This was an Elite Eight game,” Calipari said. “The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four. That’s what this was.”
It was an instant classic for so many reasons, starting with the symbolic stakes.
The blue-blood Wildcats teemed with unworldly talent that was hard to corral together; the blue-collar Shockers teamed disparate, neglected parts into seamless cohesion.
That made for doubters and detractors of each for almost opposite reasons.
Wichita State had been 35-0, the longest unbeaten streak ever to start a season, but some scoffed because of the Shockers’ schedule.
Kentucky was just 25-10 after being breathlessly talked up as a prospective 40-0 to start the season.
“They have been attacked, they have been bludgeoned,” Calipari said. “‘They can’t play. They’re not a team. You can’t do it this way.’”
Then both teams did it their way for 40 mesmerizing minutes that featured 14 lead changes and three ties.
And featured Cleanthony Early scoring 31 points for the Shockers amid apparently declaring in a huddle that he was “born for this (stuff).”
And the Harrison twins combining for 39 points for the Wildcats.
And a zillion other pivotal, intense moments, the kind that came from neither team budging and both grasping and groping and lunging for every loose ball.
Kentucky may have had more special players, yes, but the Wildcats matched Wichita State’s grittiness.
The Shockers may have had lesser players, but they matched Kentucky’s skills with deft passing and anticipation.
And who could say where it was going? The only thing you knew was no one wanted it to end, and that with minutes to go, you could already feel an ache for whichever team would fall.
“They would have the lead, we would have the lead,” Marshall said. “They would have the lead, we would have the lead.”
Finally, there were three seconds left, and the Shockers called timeout with one last chance to tie or take the lead.
In the huddle, Marshall called for a play with three options: Early, who had been 12 of 17 from the field, Baker (seven of 12) and, finally, VanVleet.
VanVleet had been only one of five from the field but has demonstrated a knack for the big play, and it came down to him after Kentucky opted to squelch Early and Baker and force the ball to the top.
It might have been what the Wildcats wanted, but it also the clean look the Shockers could only hope for.
“We had a shot in the air from the MVP of our league who is a clutch performer,” Marshall said.
So up the ball went.
If you just followed its arc, it seemed to hover forever as the shot that would decide so much.
Then it clanked away, but it was impossible to say the result diminished the Shockers’ season.
It is over too soon, yes, but this season to remember ended with a game to treasure that ultimately will add more to its meaning than it will take away from it.