LOS ANGELES — They were overlooked before the season because last year's five leading scorers graduated. They were dwarfed in their own league by highly touted Creighton. And they were overshadowed during their NCAA tournament run because another Cinderella story was even more unfathomable than their own.
Only now that they've vanquished the best the West Region had to offer can the Wichita State Shockers not be ignored any longer.
Despite temporarily losing two of their best players to second-half injuries and allowing a determined Ohio State team to cut a 20-point deficit to three in the final minutes, Wichita State refused to fold and escaped with for a 70-66 victory. The ninth-seeded Shockers advance to the school's first Final Four since 1965, where they'll again be an underdog against either Duke or Louisville next Saturday.
"We've been called the underdogs all year and nobody believed we could get to this point," Wichita State junior Nick Wiggins said. "It's just an unbelievable feeling to actually prove everyone wrong, make it to the Final Four and have this success."
Wichita State becomes only the fifth team seeded ninth or higher to make the Final Four, joining Penn (No. 9 in 1979), LSU (No. 11 in 1986), George Mason (No. 11 in 2006) and Virginia Commonwealth (No. 11 in 2011). The Shockers didn't have an easy path either, knocking out Big East power Pittsburgh, No. 1 seed Gonzaga and streaking upstart La Salle just to advance to the Elite Eight.
Toppling Ohio State was especially impressive simply because the surging Buckeyes were playing their best basketball in March. Buoyed by an elite defense and the emergence of complementary scorers who have taken the pressure off Deshaun Thomas, they had won 11 in a row entering Saturday's game to advance within one game of a second straight Final Four.
The most remarkable part of Wichita State's run was the Shockers did it with ex-walk-ons, junior college transfers and overlooked prospects that a powerhouse like Ohio State wouldn't even dream of recruiting.
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State's leading scorer, lacked the grades to attend a Division I school out of high school and attended a lower-level New York junior college to stay close to his mom after the death of his older brother.
Carl Hall, the Shockers' top big man, gave up basketball after experiencing fainting spells and went to work in a light bulb factory before picking the game again in junior college.
Malcolm Armstead, their starting point guard, took out a loan and got a part-time job at a car dealership to pay his own way at Wichita State last season because the Shockers had no scholarships available for the Oregon transfer.
And Ron Baker, their starting shooting guard, agreed to pay his own last season as well because the only other Division I schools that offered him scholarships, South Dakota State and Arkansas Little Rock, were too far from his Kansas home.
That collection of castoffs dominated Ohio State's bevy of top 100 recruits and McDonald's All-Americans for the first 30 minutes. They out-rebounded the Buckeyes by 10 in the first half, knocked down 3-pointer after 3-pointer and held Ohio State to 8 of 33 first-half shooting, opening a 13-point halftime lead and extending it to 20 midway through the second half.
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"You can't go 8 for 33 in the first half against a great team," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "I'm giving Wichita State the credit. Man, they D'd us up. That was the biggest thing."
Wichita State remained in complete control even after Hall took an elbow to the chin from Thomas and had to leave the game for a few minutes, but that changed when Early rolled his left ankle with 10:59 left and limped off the floor. During his three-minute absence, Ohio State strung together a few stops and unleashed a 9-0 run, trimming the lead to 11 and energizing a pro-Buckeyes crowd that had been silent much of the afternoon.
"I didn't want to be back in the locker room because I knew my team needed me," Early said. "I did what the trainers told me to do and tried to get back out there as fast as possible."
Even after Early returned after undergoing X-Rays and having his ankle taped, Ohio State ratcheted up the full-court defensive pressure and Wichita State showed signs of cracking.
Hall fumbled the ball out of bounds on a sideline inbound pass with 4:23 to go and the Shockers' lead at 10. Guard Tekele Cotton caught a pass while standing on the baseline with the lead at eight less than 20 seconds later. LaQuinton Ross stripped Early with 3:22 remaining and the lead at seven. And Shannon Scott drew an offensive foul on Fred VanVleet and then sank two free throws at the other end, trimming the lead to 62-59 with still nearly three minutes to play.
It's a testament to Cotton that Wichita State never let Ohio State get any closer.
Cotton buried a momentum-changing left-wing 3-pointer on Wichita State's next possession, silencing the roaring Ohio State crowd and extending the lead to six. A Thomas layup trimmed the lead to four again, but Cotton outfought several Buckeyes for an offensive rebound of an errant Vanvleet 3-pointer, enabling Vanvleet to sink a runner that lengthened the lead to six again.
"Tekele is a warrior," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "The big three he made and then the great rebound to give us another possession, that was huge."
Once the Shockers had finally fended off Ohio State for good and began their celebration at mid-court, a fan in a yellow Wichita State t-shirt made his way down to the first row of seats and shouted, "How did this happen? There's no way."
Believe it. A Wichita State team overlooked since November is now in the Final Four.
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