ST. LOUIS – The final play call was "Havlicek." An undefeated season was riding on its execution.
Wichita State was trailing Kentucky 78-76, with 3.2 seconds left in the best game of this NCAA tournament so far – and perhaps it will still be the best game of the tourney when the whole thing is over with. Elimination was at hand if the final play did not end in a basket. After months of achievement and external argument, it came down to three seconds and one play.
Inbounds passer Tekele Cotton had three options on Havlicek.
The first option was Cleanthony Early curling backdoor off a screen at the top of the key, looking for a lob pass at the basket. Early had been transcendent Sunday – "the best player on the floor," Shockers assistant Steve Forbes said, knowing that several Wildcats will be lottery picks – scoring 31 points. But Kentucky knew Early would be the initial option, and he saw two blue jerseys go with him as he cut to the basket. It would be a long, risky pass against a long, athletic team, so Cotton did not go there.
The second option was guard Ron Baker, who had 20 points, coming off a screen in the middle of the floor to the near wing. Baker, too, was covered by the switching Wildcats. Cotton did not go there.
The third option was point guard Fred VanVleet, popping free at the top of the key. Cotton went there.
The Missouri Valley Player of the Year took one dribble left, another dribble right, and rose from 3-point range. Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison lunged at him from his left. Center Willie Cauley-Stein loomed in front. The shot was up. For the win.And then a game of magnificent basketball artistry ended with an inartistic thud of the ball off the rim. It wasn't close.
Game over. Big Blue explosion underway. Shocker dejection right along with it.
"I heard a lot of Kentucky fans cheering," Baker said. "And it kind of burnt my heart a little bit."
A perfect season ended imperfectly.
The first 35-0 record in college basketball history goes into the final ledger at 35-1.
Kentucky triumphed, playing by far its best game of the year to take down the No. 1 seed Shockers. And now the Wildcats advance to Bluegrass Armageddon Part II, the second NCAA tournament meeting with archrival Louisville in three seasons.
But before proceeding to the hyperventilation over a matchup of the past two national champions, this is the appropriate time to pay our last respects to the Shockers.
They became the lightning rods of the college basketball season – undefeated but far from undoubted. Elitists lined up to take shots at their conference and their schedule, insisting Wichita State wasn't as good as its record or its ranking. Populists came to the Shockers' defense.
The tournament would be their ultimate proving ground.
And they proved themselves. Even in defeat. Even in the round of 32.
"For us to end like this is kind of depressing," Baker said. "But I think we proved a point."
The point is this: Wichita State is legit. Worth its seeding. With a roster of guys who were largely uncelebrated by the recruiting analysts, they formed a team that belonged with the bluebloods.
There will be an offseason's worth of what-ifs for the Shockers and their fans to stew over. What if Early hadn't surprisingly missed an alley-oop dunk with eight minutes to play? What if backup Evan Wessel hadn't missed a bunny layup while being fouled – and then missed both free throws? What if Nick Wiggins hadn't missed two free throws with about five minutes to play? What it VanVleet didn't get into foul trouble, allowing Andrew and Aaron Harrison to drive the ball with impunity?
But those questions miss the point. Wichita State andKentucky gave us college basketball at its finest Sunday. The Shockers had greatness in them, and it took a Kentucky team with as many as seven NBA players finding its own greatness to eliminate the Shockers.
"I know what's in my heart, I know what I saw," Marshall said. "I thought I saw a very high-level basketball game between two incredibly gifted teams, that one team won by one play, one basket, two points. And to take anything away from what these young men have done all season long – and more importantly, how they've done it – if they want to do that, so be it. Good for them."
The last time Wichita State lost was last April, to the eventual national champions. This loss might have been to the eventual national champions, too.
Is that hyperbole? Not now. Not after the way Kentucky played Sunday.
As one Wichita State staffer said afterward, "How did those guys lose 10 games?"
This team bears scant resemblance to the shaky, disjointed group that was beaten by 14-20 South Carolina 22 days ago. John Calipari has worked an extreme – and extremely effective – makeover.
Where there was no confidence, it now overflows. Where there was no chemistry, it now thrives. Where there was no consistency, it now can be found in 40-minute supplies.
A 39-point performance from the Harrison twins against an elite team seemed impossible three weeks ago. Yet there they were, making 10 of 13 free throws and 12 of 22 field goals. In the final minutes, they lowered their heads and bulled to the basket, repeatedly drawing fouls and then making their foul shots.
Multiple clutch plays by James Young also seemed unlikely at times this season. Yet there he was, hitting a 3-pointer with 97 seconds left that gave Kentuckythe lead for good and grabbing a pair of huge rebounds late.
A 13-point, 10-rebound, six-assist game from Julius Randle? Maybe the first two-thirds of that stat line, but not the last part. Randle forced nothing today, letting everything come to him and serving as an adept passer. His 5-of-6 foul shooting was a departure from early season form as well.
The loosely affiliated collection of talent seen at times in Kentucky uniforms came together as a unit. And the result was an exalted performance.
"It's so hard trying to figure out roles for guys when you got all these young guys here," Calipari said. "And that means each guy has to sacrifice, each guy has to play the way he needs to play for the team."
It was a team win for Kentucky. A statement win.
And as strange as it may sound, it was a statement loss for a Wichita State team that hadn't lost all year. Paradoxically, the Shockers probably gained more respect in defeat than they had in any of their 35 victories.
They were legit all along. The doubt is removed in defeat.