ST. LOUIS – Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall walked slowly through the line for postgame handshakes, congratulating every player from Kentucky on advancing to the Sweet 16.
When he shook hands with John Calipari, the Wildcats’ coach whispered, “Marvelous season.”
The top-seeded Shockers were finally beaten by a team stocked with NBA prospects, the end coming when Fred VanVleet’s 3-pointer bounced off the rim and the buzzer sounded on a 78-76 loss to the Wildcats in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Cleanthony Early scored 31 points and Ron Baker had 20 for the Shockers (35-1), who hadn’t lost since last year’s Final Four.
“It really has been a magic-carpet ride, and to have it end, it’s something that we’re going to have to get used to,” Marshall said with a drained voice, “but I still think in retrospect, we’ll still look back on it and be so proud.”
Andrew Harrison had 20 points, Aaron Harrison had 19 and Julius Randle contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds for the No. 8 seed Wildcats (26-10), who advanced to face Louisville on Friday in the Midwest Regional semifinals, at long last playing like the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
“You understand this was an Elite Eight game,” Calipari said. “The winner should have gone to the Final Four.”
The game matched the bluest of the blue-bloods, the most successful program in Division I history with eight national championships, against a gritty bunch of upstarts from Wichita State that was trying to become the first team to finish off a perfect season since Indiana in 1976.
The game went back and forth the entire way. Early’s two free throws with 9.8 seconds left got the Shockers within 77-76. Then Andrew Harrison missed the second of two free throws and Early pulled down the rebound.
VanVleet raced up court and called timeout with 3.2 seconds left.
Marshall drew up a play that had Tekele Cotton inbounding the ball to VanVleet, whose 3 was wide the entire way.
It only made sense that the game would come down to the final possession.
“You’re going to go through some humps in your life, kind of like this one. It’s tough to see us go out like this,” Baker said. “At the end of the day, someone’s got to go home.”