Score: Louisville 72, Wichita State 68
Key stats: Louisville scored 47 second-half points, making 5 of 12 three-pointers. It outscored WSU 37-21 in the final 13 minutes of the game.
How the game turned: Louisville’s Luke Hancock made a three-pointer with 2:06 to play for a 65-60 lead, its largest of the game. Hancock then responded to a Shocker basket with a layup for a 67-62 lead with 1:16 to play.
Records: WSU 30-9, Louisville 34-5
- Over and over again, opponents called Wichita State the best team they faced all season, the toughest team, the most physical team. Some of that is standard post-game graciousness. At some point, it begins to mean something more than that. Nobody considered WSU a great team after it finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference and 2-3 before the starting NCAA play. Perhaps that demonstrates the skill in the MVC. It also shows that WSU became a great team in March, playing its best basketball at the right time. It played like for stretches in the regular season, to be sure, and found that groove again in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Atlanta. “There’s always a part of you that looks at the other team and says, They played their hearts out, they were superb, and they lost,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “ I don’t think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State. They are great.” The Shockers seemed to know that, even in the disappointment of Saturday night. ” It hurts to have to lose, it be the end of your season,” WSU’s Cleanthony Early said. “But these guys fought till the end. We had a great season. We have to keep our heads high and know that the grind doesn’t stop.”
- The number that best shows where WSU stands is 9-2, which is its post-season record the past three seasons. The Shockers are 6-2 in neutral-court games in that span, 1-0 on the road and 2-0 at home. In eight of those nine wins, WSU scored 70 or more points. Against the toughest competition, usually away from home, the Shockers are winning at an 82-percent clip. Their scoring, sometimes an issue in conference play, improves against tournament competition and gives them a great chance to win, assuming a normal performance on defense. Even when WSU’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament record (4-3) is added, it is winning 72 percent of its games after the regular season, most on neutral courts.
- Referee Karl Hess will get blamed for the jump-ball call that everyone rooting for WSU and/or last-second drama hated. ESPN’s Dick Vitale and Jay Williams said he whistled too quickly. So did Gary Parrish. So did several NBA players. Louisville got a gift. The Shockers needed to make a shot and it would have been fun to see them get that chance.
- Early put himself in select company with his 24 points and 10 rebounds. He joins Jerry West, Bill Walton and Akeem Olajuwon as players with 20 and 10 in a national semifinal vs. Louisville, according to ESPN Stats and Info. In the tournament, he averaged 16.2 points and 7.6 rebounds. He made 30 of 60 shots and 8 of 23 three-pointers. WSU coach Gregg Marshall talked about improvements Early needs to make but didn’t want to give away secrets. The biggest offensive improvement he can make is his ball-handling. If Early can become more proficient driving to the hoop and pulling up for mid-range jumpers, defenses are in big trouble. Another step is likely getting stronger, which will help him score on the block. He needs to let fouls go and play through bad calls. As Marshall as said many times, all the tools are there. Early will be the Valley’s preseason Player of the Year (Indiana State’s Jake Odum is the only serious challenger) and have a chance to be WSU’s first NBA player since Maurice Evans. A year of maturity and growth in the weight room and practice gym should make Early a more consistent double-double threat next season. “ I’m glad he’s on our team,” Marshall said. “I’m looking forward to coaching him. There’s a couple of things we’re going to work on specifically I’ve already got in my head, but I’m not going to talk about them. And I think he’s going to be even better next year. “
- Fouls limited Malcolm Armstead to 29 minutes, about four fewer than WSU needed. Marshall protected him late by switching him out on defense and it cost WSU, most notably when Fred VanVleet tried to create with the shot clock running down and had his shot blocked. As good as VanVleet’s been in the tournament, Armstead is WSU’s best option in those situations.
- WSU once again took the opposing team’s star(s) out of the game. Pitt’s Tray Woodall. Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk. La Salle’s Ramon Galloway. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas. Louisville’s Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. All suffered through subpar shooting nights against WSU, a credit to the scouting report and top defenders. La Salle’s Tyrone Garland (16 points on 5-of-15 shooting) and Ohio State’s LaQuinton Ross (19 on 4 of 12) tried to step up off the bench. Louisville finally got the bench boost needed to beat WSU. Luke Hancock made 6 of 9 shots, 3 of 5 from three, to score 20 points in 31 minutes. “He hit some big-time shots, and you’ve got to give him credit,” WSU’s Ron Baker said. Pitino doesn’t regard Hancock as typical bench player. ”We want him to play as many minutes as possible because he’s the best passer, the clutchest shooter and free throw shooter, and one of the smartest players to know what to do in crucial situations,” Pitino said.