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.”
Marvelous, indeed. Just not quite perfect.
The top-seeded Shockers were finally beaten by a team stocked with NBA prospects, the end coming when Fred VanVleet’s 3-pointer bounced harmlessly 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 while taking an entire city — and state — on quite a ride.
“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 bitter rival Louisville on Friday in the Midwest Regional semifinals, at long last playing like the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
“I’ve been doing this so long. I’ve been in wars,” Calipari said. “You all understand this was an Elite Eight game. The winner of this 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, Kentucky finally taking a 73-71 lead when James Young knocked down a 3-pointer with less than two minutes to go. Early answered with a basket for Wichita State, and Andrew Harrison made two free throws for Kentucky. Baker banked in a 3-pointer for the Shockers, and Randle made two more foul shots for the Wildcats.
“Both teams were making plays,” Marshall said. “Back and forth, back and forth.”
Early’s two free throws with 9.8 seconds left got the Shockers within 77-76, and they got their chance to add another chapter to their miraculous story when 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, and after a couple of dribbles he took a shot from the top of the key. But it was wide the entire way, clanking off the rim and sending the Wildcats pouring onto the court to celebrate.
“We just felt so good beating a great team,” said Andrew Harrison, who considered sitting out the game after hurting his elbow in a second-round win over Kansas State.
The Midwest Regional showdown came after an entertaining undercard matchup that saw Stanford knock off Kansas, and it lived up to every expectation.
Kentucky was successful early using its superior size, not only in the paint but also on the perimeter, where the 6-foot-6 Harrison twins dwarfed the 5-11 VanVleet. But after the Wildcats took a 19-15 lead midway through the half, Wichita State ramped up its trademark defense, forcing a series of turnovers and getting right back in the game.
VanVleet was the catalyst. On one sequence late in the half, he stripped Aaron Harrison and hit Early in transition, and he was fouled slamming over 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein. Early made the free throw as the Shockers built a 37-31 lead at the half.
“I just feel like I’m always there when my team needs me,” said Early, the breakout star of the Shockers’ Final Four run a year ago. “We feed off each other in positive ways.”
Early hit another 3-pointer right out of the locker room to match the Shockers’ biggest lead at 40-31. But VanVleet picked up his third foul moments later, and Kentucky took advantage of the Shockers missing their floor general by gradually pulling ahead.
“I would have liked to have been a little more aggressive,” VanVleet said. “We had to switch some matchups at the end because of my foul trouble. It’s hard to play like that.”
The game remained a back-and-forth prizefight the rest of the way, neither team leading by more than five, each answering the other with clutch 3-pointers and pressure-filled free throws.
It only made sense that the game would come down to the final possession.