This time around, Wichita State led for nine minutes. Kentucky for 25. There were 11 lead changes. The Shockers and the Wildcats shot within three percentage points of each other: 42 percent for UK, 39 for WSU. The teams were equal at 67 percent at the foul line. Second-chance points went 11-10 one way (Wildcats), bench points 11-10 the other (Shockers). Rebounds were 38 for Wichita State, 36 for Kentucky.
It was an even-steven affair. For the second time around. The backdrop to this season’s NCAA tournament second-round Shockers vs. Wildcats game played on March 19 in Indianapolis was, of course, the teams’ meeting in the 2014 tournament. Back then, Gregg Marshall’s “Play Angry” Shockers were a No. 1 seed, entering the tournament 34-0 and dispatching with ease their first foe the Cal Poly Mustangs 64-37 before coming up against Kentucky in the round of 32.
John Calipari’s arguably underseeded No. 8 Wildcats downed the unbeaten Shockers 78-76 in a classic back-and-forth battle featuring 14 lead changes and heart-pounding drama: Forward Cleanthony Early led WSU with 31 points, including a dominating stretch in the second half that thrilled Shocker fans and helped give Wichita State its chance to win at the buzzer. But guard Fred VanVleet’s 3-point shot didn’t drop, and the Shockers ended their season at 35-1.
Three years later, Wichita State and Kentucky met again. The Shockers and Wildcats reprised their 2014 roles and staged another classic NCAA tournament battle. And the result was, unfortunately for the Shockers and their fans, the same, although the seeds were different – practically upside down from 2014: Kentucky was a No. 2 seed, Wichita State an underseeded No. 10. The players were different, with WSU facing UK with Markis McDuffie and Landry Shamet instead of Early and VanVleet. And the score was different: Wildcats 65, Shockers 62.
Calipari called it a “grind-it-out game.” It was. It wasn’t a pretty game. In 2014, sportscasters and writers likened the contest to a prizefight. This time around, they called it a bar fight. Neither team scored a point in the first two minutes of play. Wichita State’s Zach Brown opened up the scoring with a free throw and went on to fight for 9 points and 8 rebounds.
The Shockers shot just 38.7 percent for the game; Kentucky slightly better at 41.8 percent. Landry Shamet led all scorers with 20 points, but buckets were hard to find for both teams. Some 15 minutes into the game, the Shockers were 6 of 24 from the field, yet trailed by only a point. They weren’t letting the lack of offense affect their defensive performance, which was fierce. To cite just one game statistic as evidence: the Shockers kept the Wildcats to just two fast-break points all game long – none in the opening half of play. And at the half, Wichita State was behind by a bucket, 26-24, in the defensive struggle.
The Shockers outscored the Wildcats 13-7 to start the second half, pounding out a 37-33 lead. But Kentucky completed a 7-0 run and jumped ahead 40-37 with 13:07 minutes to go in the game. The slug fest continued. With four minutes remaining, the Wildcats had punched their advantage up to 58-51.
The Shockers pounded right back, and when Shamet buried his second 3-pointer of the game from well behind the arc, the scoreboard read UK 63, WSU 62 – with 55.7 ticks left on the clock.
Both Wichita State and Kentucky blocked five shots in the game. For the Shockers, Shaquille Morris blocked three, McDuffie and Darral Willis Jr. one apiece. But it was two huge blocks by Kentucky within those last 55.7 seconds that dashed Wichita State’s hopes of advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in Memphis, Tenn.
McDuffie – who played 32 minutes and had 1 steal, 3 assists, 4 rebounds and 5 points in the game – went up for a go-ahead 3-point try with 13.8 seconds remaining. Malik Monk, a UK freshman, rejected the shot. After a Shocker foul, Monk sank two free throws. With the score 65-62 and 10 seconds to go, Wichita State tried again. Shamet, who was on the floor a total of 34 minutes for the Shockers, made a game-tying 3-point attempt at the buzzer. But Bam Adebayo, another UK rookie, blocked the shot.
After the game, one Kentucky fan from Knoxville, Tenn., had this to say about the 10th-seeded Shockers, who came into the game ranked No. 6 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistical ratings: “That was not a 10 seed. Wow, tough team! Best defense we’ve seen all year, and if they played many others today, I think they would have been victorious.”
Another Kentucky fan, this one from Shepherdsville, Ky., was quoted on ESPN.com with words that would have been just as on point back in 2014: “Props to the Shockers. They played one heck of a game. This should’ve been an Elite Eight game.”
Wichita State’s second heartbreaker of a loss to Kentucky set their 2016-17 record at 31-5. And for the second time in NCAA history, it was Kentucky that stopped the Shockers’ tournament run.
But not their plans for the future. During the post-game interview at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Marshall commented: “And if we get a break or two, and another shot goes down, maybe we’re advancing, maybe we win the whole thing. I mean, that’s possible. So that will be our goal next year.”