Originally Published: March 30, 2013

Wichita State keeps dancing to the Final Four

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com


LOS ANGELES -- On Saturday night, Gregg Marshall danced.

The Wichita State head coach swayed back and forth as he held his family members. The school's band blasted Aretha Franklin's "Respect" in the background, while Marshall inhaled the mood created by the vibrant gathering around him. Then, he shuffled toward the ladder to cut down the nets.

Wichita State players hugged one another on the court. Shockers fans in the stands screamed. Some bewildered supporters slapped the shoulders of friends. All smiled.

That scene followed Wichita State's 70-66 upset victory over second-seeded Ohio State in the Elite Eight at Staples Center. After a dramatic conclusion to a game that had gone from lopsided victory to thriller, the Shockers earned the program's first trip to the Final Four since 1965.

Malcolm Armstead finished with 14 points (6-for-21), seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. Cleanthony Early added 12 points and Carl Hall blocked six shots.

Wichita State held the Big Ten tourney champs to a 31.1 percent clip from the field (second lowest of the season for the Buckeyes) and a 5-for-25 mark from the 3-point line. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Ohio State's 7-for-35 tally outside the paint was its worst effort in its past four NCAA tournament appearances.

Fred Van Vleet
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesFred Van Vleet, 23, leads the cheering section as WSU's surprising tournament run heads to Atlanta.

Yes, the Shockers will be in Atlanta with Syracuse and the winner of Sunday's Duke-Louisville and Florida-Michigan matchups.

Wichita State will be just the fifth team with a 9-seed or lower to reach the Final Four. No 9-seed has ever won it all. But …

"We've got a team full of fighters, and I don't think we're done yet," Hall said.

This is the same Wichita State team that finished second to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and league tournament. This is the same Wichita State squad that lost three consecutive games to Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Indiana State midway through its conference slate. This is the same assembly that worried about missing the field as Selection Sunday approached but secured a 9-seed from the NCAA tournament's selection committee.

Ohio State was a factor in the title race of a conference that was widely recognized as America's best. The Buckeyes had won 11 games in a row entering their second consecutive Elite Eight appearance. That stretch included wins over Michigan State (twice), Indiana, Iowa State and Arizona.

Now, Michigan is the Big Ten's last hope to end the league's national title drought, which began after Michigan State won the championship in 2000.

It's quite possible, depending on the outcome of Sunday's games, that the Missouri Valley Conference will send more teams to Atlanta than the Big Ten.

Given the latter's assumed supremacy throughout the regular season, it would be surprising. But the regular season called for this chaos.

Chaminade, a Division II squad, beat Texas. Games were canceled due to condensation. John Calipari and defending champ Kentucky added another crop of NBA prospects but lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Florida Gulf Coast reached the Sweet 16 and Florida State didn't reach the tournament.

So Wichita State's rally fits the improbable tale of the 2012-13 season. Many things have happened that we can't really explain.

The Shockers are led by a group of young men who are not on NBA radars or All-American lists. Hall worked in a factory a few years ago. Early previously played at a low-level junior college. Armstead, a transfer from Oregon, left the Pac-12 for an MVC school even though Marshall didn't have a scholarship for him.

Now they're all on their way to the final stage in Atlanta. Not the Buckeyes.

"I just think it's a mixed emotion of feelings," Early said. "We're excited. We're happy, and we're just ready to play. We've got to continue to stay focused, work hard and get better."

But Ohio State resisted defeat with valor.

Everything that made this Buckeyes team one of America's elite squads, especially in the last month of the season, oozed from this roster in the second half on Saturday.

The Bucks were down 35-22 at halftime after missing eight 3-point attempts (10 total) in the first half. Wichita State pounced early and snatched the mojo of Thad Matta's program. Star Deshaun Thomas went 4-for-13 before halftime.

And the collapse continued in the second half. With 11:02 remaining in regulation, Wichita State led 56-36. Game over, right? Nope. Fate is too stubborn for such simplicity.

Deshaun Thomas
Travis Heying/Getty ImagesDeshaun Thomas tried to lead Ohio State back in the second half, but the Buckeyes fell short.

Between Early's ankle injury and the renewed spirit of its opponents, WSU nearly lost. Fred Van Vleet's three-point play with 7:03 to go gave the Shockers a 60-46 lead. Then, Thomas led a 13-2 run.

Consecutive plays by LaQuinton Ross -- a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws after he'd forced a turnover -- and Shannon Scott's free throws with 2:48 on the game clock ultimately cut Wichita State's lead to three points, 62-59.

"We were almost out for the count," Hall said.

There they were again. Wounded.

It was a familiar position for the Shockers. They were always facing some form of adversity, it seemed, throughout the regular season. Hall, Ron Baker (who celebrated his 20th birthday on Saturday), Evan Wessel and Ehimen Orukpe were all injured at some point this season.

That affected chemistry and hindered a team that lost its third consecutive MVC matchup on Feb. 5 against last-place Southern Illinois. The game ended on a controversial goaltending call, but the score wasn't reversed. And Marshall was unsure of his program's immediate future.

"It was our third loss in a row, and I'm thinking, man, we're probably not going to get [into the NCAA tournament]," Marshall said. "Because it's hard for non-BCS leagues."

But players healed. The unity returned. And the Shockers began to jell at the most critical juncture of the season. That punch they took from a determined Ohio State squad on Saturday was not unfamiliar. Their resilience was not foreign, either.

With 2:07 to go, the same Wichita State that had a 20-point lead early in the second half was up just 65-61. But Van Vleet's bucket with a minute to play widened the divide to six points. Baker's two free throws with 51 seconds on the game clock gave Wichita an eight-point lead.

In the final moments, Tekele Cotton snatched the rebound off an OSU miss, drew a foul and made one of two free throws. Ohio State pulled within four points on Aaron Craft's 3-pointer with eight seconds play.

But that was it. The Buckeyes came close but couldn't complete the comeback.

"That takes courage and toughness," Marshall said of Ohio State's run.

It also takes courage and toughness to reach the Final Four with a roster that was incomplete just a few weeks ago.

Marshall said he will reward his team on Sunday with a short break before another tough week.

"We'll probably take tomorrow off," he said.

That's just more time to dance.