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Bloodied but unflinching Wichita State, Fred VanVleet throw final punch

DAYTON, Ohio -- The single stream of blood flowing out of the cut over his right eye made for a grisly sight, but frustration trumped pain for Fred VanVleet.

The Wichita State guard claimed to not even feel the elbow that turned his face into a mess and required some butterfly bandages on the sideline, and he even tried to take the ball to throw an inbounds pass before a referee pointed out the injury and forced him to take a seat.

One of the winningest players in school history and an NCAA tournament veteran with seven career bracket wins already, VanVleet had no interest in missing a single minute with his decorated career on the line Tuesday night in the First Four at UD Arena. After getting patched up quickly, VanVleet hopped up, ignored the potential nuisance over his eye and went right back to work, delivering another clutch postseason performance in a 70-50 win over Vanderbilt.

"It didn't hurt at all," VanVleet said. "I'm definitely just thinking, 'Man, this is wasting my time.' On the bench with a little cut? This is not affecting me or the game.

"That's always frustrating, but you just have to get it cleaned up and our trainer was able to get it done pretty quickly."

Once that unexpected need for a cutman was over, VanVleet and the Shockers wound up throwing the haymakers that really counted with their trademark defense, fearless rebounding and some clutch shooting after an uneven opening half. In the process, they sent a message that their tough, gritty, sometimes bloody approach isn't going to make it easy for anybody moving forward, starting with the No. 6 seed Arizona on Thursday in the South Region.

It certainly wasn't VanVleet alone doing all the work. It never is for a program that relies just as heavily on his backcourt partner Ron Baker and a deep roster of role players that included six players coming off the bench to lend a hand against the talented Commodores. But VanVleet sets the tone, something the Shockers were reminded of during three losses early in the season in which VanVleet was out with an injured hamstring. He'll be the key if Wichita State is going to put together another postseason run.

"No, I wasn't worried," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said about the cut. "It was Fred VanVleet, man. I knew he was going to get stitched up and get right back in the game.

"You know, we were struggling in Orlando [with the losses to USC, Alabama and Iowa]. Fred was out, four of our top eight players were out. But I knew we had some guys on the way back, the cavalry was coming and Fred VanVleet is the general when it comes to [this team]."

VanVleet proved more than capable of leading the charge against Vanderbilt, putting the finishing touches on a 14-point, seven-assist performance in the closing seconds with a dagger of a jump shot that sealed the 20-point win.

The win certainly wasn’t without a few flaws, most notably offensive struggles in the first half when the Shockers missed all five of their 3-point attempts and were forced to rely too heavily on the nation’s top scoring defense to keep pace with the Commodores. Scoring droughts could be much tougher to overcome against an Arizona offense that ranked No. 19 in the nation by averaging more than 81 points per game, and the Shockers know from experience that the challenges only grow with every victory.

But that doesn’t mean their battle-tested general wasn’t going to take some time to enjoy the one he bled for against Vanderbilt.

"You would think at this point you would take it for granted, but I appreciate the wins even more now," VanVleet said. "I've worked so hard this year and even tonight, that was a hard-fought win. It was hot in here, guys were tired, got my eye busted open the first couple plays of the game. We had to work so hard this year to overcome all the adversity, and this one is so sweet for us.

"I know it's the First Four, but we were able to get in after everything we've been through and we're moving on to face a very, very talented Arizona team."

The Wildcats should be prepared. It will take more than bloodying the Shockers to knock them out.