The Wichita State Shockers secured their spot in the NCAA tournament regional semifinal round for the sixth time in school history with a cathartic 78-65 victory over the Kansas Jayhawks on Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska, punctuated by a dominant second half that featured a strong showing from a veteran backcourt.
Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Evan Wessel combined for 60 points and nine 3-pointers as the Shockers overcame an eight-point first-half deficit against their former in-state rivals. Kansas and Wichita State once played regularly but had not met since 1993 until Sunday, a much-awaited rematch for the Shockers.
And the Shockers played like they wanted it more.
“They obviously were better prepared and ready for the moment better than us,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Seventh-seeded Wichita State (30-4) beat Indiana in the second round on Friday.
Star of the first weekend: No doubt, it was VanVleet, the junior point guard from Rockford, Illinois, who matched a career high with 27 points against Indiana. VanVleet scored 17 on 4-of-12 shooting against Kansas, handling the dynamic Frank Mason on defense. With 54 seconds to play in the first half, VanVleet nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key to unlock a tie at 26 after the Shockers trailed for 18 of the first 19 minutes. As KU called timeout, VanVleet unleashed a scream that symbolized the Shockers’ tenacious attitude in Omaha. From there, Wichita State played freely and never relinquished the lead. It’s clear after 80 minutes of basketball in this NCAA tournament, the Shockers will go as far as VanVleet leads them.
The big moment in Omaha: While VanVleet’s 3 late in the first half against the Jayhawks set the stage for the big second half, the Shockers still had to deliver. And did they ever. Up 34-30 three minutes into the second half, Wichita State got a 3 from Wessel -- one of his four on Sunday from long range -- to take its largest lead. Over the next minute, VanVleet scored at close range, and Baker tipped in a VanVleet miss in transition. Just like that, the Shockers led 41-30, forcing the Jayhawks to call a second timeout in a 65-second span. Kansas never recovered. The quick flurry illustrated the dangerous nature of these Shockers, whose savvy guards can turn a game in their favor without warning. It happened against Indiana in similar fashion after the Hoosiers took control early.
What’s next? A trip to Cleveland and a Thursday meeting with Notre Dame. There’s no looking ahead with this group, but if the Shockers win and Kentucky gets past the regional semifinals, Wichita State would meet the unbeaten Wildcats with a trip to the Final Four on the line. You might remember that Kentucky beat the No. 1-seeded and undefeated Shockers 78-76 in the third round in St. Louis a year ago en route to the Final Four. Such a stage would not shake the Shockers, who advanced to the Final Four in 2013 before losing to Louisville. Baker starred for the Shockers in each of the past two seasons, and VanVleet stepped into a key role a year ago as Wichita State started 35-0. Notre Dame, which beat Northeastern and Butler to reach Cleveland, brings an impressive ACC résumé. But the Shockers, who played Kentucky, Indiana and Kansas in their past three tournament games, won’t be in awe.