ATLANTA – Moments after losing Saturday night’s NCAA national semifinal game to Louisville 72-68, Wichita State guard Ron Baker was asked what it is like to face the pressure defense that defines the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed.
“First you get used to it and then they increase the intensity of their pressure,” said Baker, a freshman who scored 11 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had just one turnover in 33 minutes. “It kind of hits you in waves. Towards the end of the game, it kind of took over.
“We fought, but came up a couple of plays short in the end.”
That’s how the NCAA’s latest Cinderella story ended in this, the 75th Final Four. Wichita State (30-9), which set a school record for wins in a season and made its first Final Four appearance since 1965, held a 12-point lead with 13 minutes and 36 seconds left to play. The crowd at the Georgia Dome, sensing that the top seed was in trouble, started throwing its support toward the underdog Shockers.
Seven minutes later Wichita State’s lead was gone and so was the cool and calm demeanor that had helped the Shockers build that lead. After 26 minutes without a turnover, the Shockers gave the ball back to Louisville on five of the next seven possessions.
That was a wave Wichita State could not survive.
“Louisville gets credit for that,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “You know, in the course of a 40-minute game against some of the best pressure you’re going to see every time the ball is inbounded, we had 11 turnovers. So that’s not bad. Certainly when they were coming back, that was a part of it.”
The comeback continued until the Cardinals took their biggest lead, 65-60, with two minutes remaining. But Wichita State still had a chance after Louisville’s Luke Hancock (20 points) missed the second of two free throws with 8.8 seconds remaining and the Cardinals leading 71-68.
Baker grabbed the rebound, but Hancock got his hand on the ball too, resulting in a held ball call by referee Karl Hess. Replays seemed to the show the ball squirted loose and the call may have been premature. But the possession arrow went Louisville’s way and the Shockers were forced to send guard Russ Smith (21 points) to the free throw line. Smith hit one of his two free throws to make it a two-possession game.
“I was forced to dribble the ball because I lost my balance,” Baker said. “I thought the ball was loose before the whistle was blown. I tapped it to Malcolm [Armstead]. They already called jump ball, so . . . “
During the team’s postgame press conference, Marshall was asked how long an official should take before calling a jump ball.
“Well as soon as both players have control of it to prevent a wrestling match, I guess,” Marshall said. “So if both players have their hands on it, it should be a held ball.”
Wichita State jumped out to a surprising 8-0 lead and forward Cleanthony Early had an outstanding Final Four debut with 24 points, 10 rebounds and a block in 37 minutes. But after taking that 12-point lead, the Shockers let down their guard a bit on defense before that rash of turnovers.
Louisville junior Tim Henderson, who played 10 minutes in large part because of the broken leg suffered by Kevin Ware, hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the Wichita State lead to 47-41 just a minute later.
“It kind of hurt us,” Early said. “We had a defensive plan to just be in the gaps and force them to shoot those shots. They just happened to knock them down.
“It hurts to lose and for it to be the end of your season. But these guys fought until the end. We had a great season. We have to keep our heads high and know that the grind doesn’t stop. We’re always invested in getting better.”
Armstead, the Shockers point guard who walked on last season and paid his way for a chance to make the tournament as a senior, had seven assists and just three turnovers but was 1-for-10 from the field and 0-for-5 from 3-point range.
“Just missing shots,” he said. “A lot of my shots were uncontested. It wasn’t my night offensively as far as scoring the ball. But I can’t control that. The only thing I can control is defense and still being positive for my teammates.
“We were confident and poised. We were executing the game plan, trying to do what we do. We were able to be successful early.”
The final seven minutes were just the opposite. And that’s where Louisville showed its Final Four experience, playing on the final weekend for the second year in a row.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever felt exactly like this,” Marshall said. “Any time you lose your last game, it’s hard. This one’s especially hard because of the run we went on. . . .This may be the most important basketball game that I’ll ever coach. It’s definitely the most important to date and it’s probably the most important that Wichita State’s ever played in.
“But we didn’t say goodbye. We didn’t say this is it. This just a beginning for us and I’m pretty excited about it.”