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NCAA tournament: Kentucky ends Wichita State’s unbeaten season

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

He rose up to extend history, 35 games of perfection on the line. The look was there for Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet, who was open as the clock ticked down on his team’s magical season. It was the type of moment college basketball fans crave, in the type of thriller the NCAA tournament breeds, and no matter what happened next the game would still be considered an instant classic.

As VanVleet’s shot struck the rim and bounced away, the court at Scotttrade Center in St. Louis flooded with Kentucky blue following the eighth-seeded Wildcats’ 78-76 victory that handed top-seeded Wichita State its first loss in 351 days, since the 2013 Final Four. The Wildcats had begun the season with dreams of begin exactly where the Shockers stood, undefeated and the toast of the sport after a recruiting class billed as the greatest in history. Instead, the roles were reversed. They were the spoilers.

After what preceded VanVleet’s shot, it seemed almost cruel that the game had to end on a missed basket. Everything had been perfect, from Wichita State’s Rod Baker banking in a three-pointer with 29.3 seconds left to a huge three-pointer by  Kentucky’s James Young that gave the Wildcats a lead they never relinquished. Wildcats freshman forward Julius Randle had been dominant, with his NCAA-best 22nd double-double of the season. Shockers forward Cleanthony Early had been brilliant. The ending even managed to erase from memory the highlight-crammed first half, with transition dunks and pinpoint bounce passes, enough to film a season’s worth of hype videos.

In the end, as coaches Gregg Marshall and John Calipari converged on the scorer’s table to shake hands, Kentucky had advanced to the Sweet 16, where in-state rival Louisville awaits in a battle of the last two national champions (the Wildcats beat the Cardinals in the 2012 Final Four). And the Shockers, the first team to enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten since UNLV in 1990-91, were headed home, carrying with them the memories from the one game that got away.

This was March Madness in its rawest form, as compelling as it gets. Here was unusual hype for a second-round game, in no small part thanks to the narratives contrasting the value of veterans with the volatility of one-and-dones. The Wildcats were built on McDonalds all-Americans armed with five-star statuses. The Shockers were a team of experience, perhaps untested in a weak Missouri Valley Conference, but led by players who starred last season, when they reached the national semifinals.

The former won out in St. Louis, where Kentucky’s freshmen came together for the greatest achievement of what, for some, will become an ephemeral college career. Randle finished with 13 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, the first player with such a balanced line in beating a No. 1 seed since 2003. Aaron and Andrew Harrison, the twin guards whose back-court inconsistencies had become the bane of Calipari’s existence during this highly scrutinized campaign, reconciled nine total turnovers with 39 total points, including five three-pointers.

The Shockers were not without fight. Early became the talk of Twitter, scoring 31 points on 17 shots. Baker chipped in 20, but with VanVleet sidelined by second-half foul trouble, the Wildcats slowly chipped away from a six-point halftime deficit and eventually climbed ahead.

Over the next several days, as Kentucky soldiers on with its all-Americans and five-star freshmen, the value of Wichita State’s season will be debated. Does one final loss, in the second round no less, relegate the first 35 games to backseat status? Or was it all so impressive taken together, from the historic stretch to the riveting conclusion, that it was heartbreaking and almost necessary for perfection to end on an afternoon so, well, perfect?

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