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Kentucky ends Wichita State's undefeated season in 78-76 thriller

Sam Cooper
The Dagger

It had been 351 days since the Wichita State Shockers had lost a game – a Final Four loss to Louisville, the eventual national champions. This time, the Shockers ran into another squad from the Bluegrass State, the Kentucky Wildcats, and suffered a similar fate.

Kentucky, the nation’s No. 1 ranked team in the preseason, knocked off the Shockers 78-76 behind double-digit scoring efforts from four standout freshmen.

Andrew and Aaron Harrison, twins from Richmond, Texas, combined for 39 points and 6-foot-9, 250-pound big man Julius Randle was huge with 13 points and 10 rebounds -- his 22nd double-double of the season. James Young added 13 points and eight rebounds and was 3-of-5 from three.

Wichita State senior Cleanthony Early poured in 31 points and Ron Baker added 20, but it wasn’t enough to continue the team’s dream season.

The Shockers had a last-ditch effort to pull out the win, but point guard Fred VanVleet's 3-pointer was off target as time expired, clinching the Kentucky upset.

[Photos: Kentucky sends Wichita State home in 78-76 thriller]

The game was ultra-competitive from the start. The first ten minutes alone featured seven lead changes until Wichita State started to turn on the defensive pressure and go on a bit of a run. The Shockers built its lead to nine points on two separate occasions, most notably following a highlight dunk by Early on a feed from VanVleet.

The young Wildcats would not wilt though, as Young responded with a big three that cut the Wichita State lead to six at halftime.

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Wichita State's Cleanthony Early and Fred VanVleet talk to the media after their loss. (AP)

Building off Young's three, the Wildcats stormed out the gates in the second half, going on a 10-3 run to retake a 41-40 lead with 16:25 to go. It was back on the see-saw from there on out as the lead changed hands six times and neither team could extend a lead beyond five points.

The Wildcats finally took the lead for good when Young hit another clutch three, giving his team a 73-71 lead with just 1:40 to go. Andrew Harrison then made it a two-possession lead with two clutch free throws, but the Shockers were not done yet as Baker banked in a three from the left wing to cut the lead to one with 31 seconds to go.

Randle was fouled on the other end and the 70 percent free throw shooter confidently knocked down both to build the lead back to three, 77-74. Two Early free throws made it 77-76 with 9.8 seconds left and the Shockers had a chance when Andrew Harrison then hit one of two on the other end, setting up VanVleet's last second three that clanked off the rim at the buzzer.

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In a matchup between the team with the five-star recruits and the Missouri Valley Conference champions, the five-star recruits came out on top, setting up a Sweet 16 showdown between Kentucky and in-state rival Louisville.

Kentucky is no ordinary No. 8 seed and was an extremely tough draw for any No. 1 seed, not just the mid-major Shockers. Detractors will look at Wichita State's schedule and say that were not worthy of a top seed, but if the Shockers were in another region and drew another eight seed like Colorado, Gonzaga or Memphis, Gregg Marshall's team would probably be moving on in the tournament. 

But now it is Kentucky who is advancing to the Sweet 16 for a rematch with Louisville, who the 26-10 Wildcats knocked off 73-66 on Dec. 28. 

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