Wicked Wichita of the West
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.
Malcolm Armstead scored 14 points, Fred Van Vleet bounced in a big basket with 1 minute left, and ninth-seeded Wichita State earned its first trip to the Final Four since 1965 with a 70-66 victory over Ohio State on Saturday.
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 their second straight Final Four.
Wichita State roared to a 20-point lead with 11 minutes to play after Ohio State played an awful first half, but LaQuinton Ross scored 15 of his 19 points after halftime, leading a ferocious rally to within three points in the final minutes.
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.
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 VCU’s improbable run in 2011.
The Shockers are also the kings of Kansas, reaching the national semifinals after the powerful Jayhawks and Kansas State both went down.
Deshaun Thomas scored 21 points after missing nine of his first 12 shots for the Buckeyes, who made just 24 percent of their 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.
But after two weeks of upsets in the wild West bracket, underdog Wichita State was an appropriate choice to cut down Staples Center’s nets. The Shockers’ well-balanced roster built that enormous lead with the same consummate team play that they’ve shown throughout the tournament.
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.
Syracuse 55, Marquette 39
WASHINGTON — Jim Boeheim calls this year’s Syracuse team his best defensive group ever. Hard to argue, based on the suffocating performances that put the Orange in the Final Four.
Using its trapping, shot-challenging 2-3 zone to perfect effect for 40 minutes, No. 4-seeded Syracuse shut down No. 3 Marquette in the East Regional final Saturday to earn Boeheim his first trip to the national semis since a freshman named Carmelo Anthony helped win the 2003 NCAA title.
“It’s a great thing,” Boeheim joked afterward. “We go once every 10 years.”
Fittingly, a matchup between schools from the soon-to-break-apart, rough-and-tumble Big East became quite a struggle on the offensive end. Syracuse (30-9) was led by senior forward James Southerland’s 16 points. Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-foot-6 guard who is out front in the zone, was named the regional’s top player after having 12 points and eight rebounds Saturday.
Marquette (26-9) hadn’t scored fewer than 47 points this season — and, indeed, put up 74 in a victory over Syracuse on Feb. 25. But this time, Marquette kept turning the ball over, seeing its shots blocked or just plain missing.
It was much like what happened Thursday in the regional semifinals, when Syracuse knocked off top-seeded Indiana by holding it to a season-low output, too.
All told, Marquette made only 12 of 53 shots — 23 percent — and was 3 for 24 on 3-pointers. Vander Blue, who carried Marquette to the round of eight, was held to 14 points on 3-for-15 shooting.
In the national semifinals at Atlanta next week, Syracuse will face the winner of Sunday’s South Regional final between Florida and Michigan.
The Big East is transforming radically before next season. Syracuse is heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference, while Marquette is one of seven basketball-centric schools departing the conference to form a new league that is taking the Big East name with it.