LOS ANGELES — Wichita State is headed to the Final Four, and these Shockers should be no surprise to anybody.
Not after the way they held off mighty Ohio State in the West Regional final Saturday.
Malcolm Armstead scored 14 points, Fred Van Vleet bounced in a big basket with one minute left, and ninth-seeded Wichita State earned its first trip to the Final Four since 1965 with a 70-66 victory over the Buckeyes.
Van Vleet scored 12 points as the Shockers (30-8) followed up last week’s win over top-ranked Gonzaga with a nail-biting victory over the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-8), whose 11-game winning streak ended one game short of a second straight Final Four.
Wichita State is just the fifth team seeded ninth or higher to reach the Final Four since seeding began in 1979, but the second in three years following 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth’s improbable run in 2011.
“Last year we were watching all this on television,” said Cleanthony Early, who scored 12 points. “Now I’m looking at a hat that says ‘Final Four Atlanta’ with my team on it. It’s crazy. I still can’t believe we’re here. You try to expect it but you expect a lot of things that don’t happen. This really happened.”
Wichita State roared to a 20-point lead with 11 minutes left after Ohio State played an awful first half, but LaQuinton Ross scored 15 of his 19 points after that, leading a ferocious rally that got the Buckeyes within three points late.
But after Tekele Cotton hit a 3-pointer with 2:20 left, VanVleet scored on a shot that bounced all over the rim before dropping. Ron Baker and Cotton hit last-minute free throws to secure the second Final Four trip in Wichita State’s history.
The Shockers are also the kings of Kansas after the powerful Jayhawks and Kansas State both went down.
“We’re happy but I’m still shocked,” said Carl Hall, the glasses-wearing big man who scored eight points and led the Shockers’ strong defensive effort. “We’ve got a team full of fighters. I brought them all together near the end and said, ‘No matter what happens, I love y’all.’ We had to fight so hard. We’ve got each other’s backs and it’s hard to beat a team that’s got five guys who work together like us.”
Deshaun Thomas scored 21 points after missing nine of his first 12 shots for Ohio State, which made just 24 percent of its first-half shots. Aaron Craft scored nine points on 2-for-12 shooting for the Buckeyes, who dug a hole too deep to escape with their second-half rally.
“The way we shot coming into the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, everything was falling,” Thomas said. “Today it just wasn’t our night. Nothing was falling.”
But after two weeks of upsets in the wild West bracket, underdog Wichita State seemed an appropriate pick to cut down Staples Center’s nets. The Shockers’ well-balanced roster managed to build that lead with the same team play they’ve shown throughout the tourney.
Two sections packed with cheering Shockers fans provided all the encouragement necessary for a team that didn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and was thought to be a bubble team for an NCAA berth. Now, Wichita State is the MVC’s first Final Four team since Larry Bird led Indiana State to the title game in 1979.
Another giant awaits the Shockers in Atlanta next weekend: They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s Midwest Regional final between Duke and Louisville.
“We’re all new to this but I think we’re ready for this,” Early said. “We’re going to prepare ourselves, and this game was pretty good preparation. We started at the bottom and we’ve been working our way up.”
This year’s tournament included stunning wins by Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle and Harvard, but nobody kept it going longer than Wichita State.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Craft said. “They really came out firing and we really didn’t regain our footing until it was too late.”