ST. LOUIS — Fred VanVleet leaned against his stall in the corner of the Wichita State locker room, just minutes removed from missing the biggest shot of his career.
All around him was emotion.
A handful of teammates wept after the Shockers’ undefeated season ended with a 78-76 loss to Kentucky. Others cursed, slamming the doors of their iron lockers. Some sat stone-faced as they stared forward, saying nothing as the sounds of Kentucky’s on-court celebration hovered in the distance.
Eventually VanVleet couldn’t take it anymore.
He had to speak.
“There’s no reason to be upset, guys,” said the point guard, never rising from his seat. “We got outplayed today. They were the better team. Don’t hang your heads.
“This game doesn’t take anything away from what we accomplished.”
If anything, what happened Sunday validated it.
In what was easily the most intriguing matchup of the NCAA tournament thus far, Wichita State and its band of overlooked, under-recruited mutts hardly looked outclassed against a Kentucky squad that features seven McDonald’s All-Americans and at least three potential lottery picks in this summer’s draft.
Kentucky needed its best performance of the season to stave off the Shockers, the first team in 23 years to enter the tournament undefeated. Wichita State had a shot to win on the game’s final play, when VanVleet’s three-pointer clanged off the rim as time expired.
“We knew Wichita State was good,” Wildcats forward Dakari Johnson said. “But we didn’t know they were that good.”
Prior to Sunday, much of America had the same skepticism about the Shockers.
Critics blasted Wichita State for its “soft” nonconference schedule—even though it included four NCAA tournament teams—while casual fans and internet trolls opined that Gregg Marshall’s squad couldn’t hang with more talented outfits from bigger leagues.
Last year’s Final Four run was a fluke, they said. The Shockers were not elite.
“All year, we tried turning nonbelievers into believers,” shooting guard Ron Baker said. “To end like this is kind of depressing. But overall, we proved a point. We’re a good team. We just came up one play short.”
Wichita State led by as many as nine points late in the first half and was ahead 69-64 with 4:37 remaining when the Wildcats made their game-deciding run. The biggest dagger came on a three-pointer by James Young that gave Kentucky a 73-71 advantage with 1:40 left.
The Shockers still had a chance when Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison missed the second of two free throws with eight seconds remaining and Kentucky up 78-76. Wichita State pushed the ball to half court and called a timeout to set up a final shot.
But VanVleet—one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith National Player of the Year award—missed an open look from the right of the key as time expired.
“(VanVleet’s) face never changed throughout the whole game,” Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein said. “You could tell he was locked into the game. He played so smooth. I thought, ‘If this dude gets a clean look, it’s going to the bottom.’ I don’t know how he missed it.”
Baker said he wouldn’t have picked anyone else to take the final shot.
“We executed our final play to perfection,” Baker said. “We got our MVP the ball...what else could we have done? We got a good look at the basket. It would’ve been great if it went in. Everybody would’ve celebrated and we’d have been remembered forever.”
Even still, this Shockers team won’t soon be forgotten.
If Wichita State had appeared rattled and overmatched by the Wildcats, then yes, maybe so. But Sunday was one of those rare occasions where a team actually enhanced its image in a loss.
Kentucky, which starts five freshmen, has been inconsistent all season and fell well short of expectations after entering the 2013-14 campaign as the top-ranked squad in America. But the Wildcats have looked like one of the nation’s best teams in recent weeks.
Kentucky came within a point of upsetting Florida in the championship game of the SEC tournament. And on Sunday it played what was easily its best game of the season. The Wildcats didn’t have any other choice if they wanted to beat Wichita State.
“There were 15 minutes left, but it felt like there were only 30 seconds left and we were up by one,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s what it felt like the whole game. That’s how hard everyone was playing. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why we play the game.”
The shame of it all was that the contest occurred in the round of 32 instead of later in the tournament. Kentucky’s inconsistency led to a string of bad losses—including two against Arkansas and one against South Carolina—that relegated the Wildcats to a No. 8 seed.
Wichita State’s reward for being 35-0 was a tilt with the nation’s most talented team.
“This was an Elite Eight game where the winner should’ve gone to the Final Four,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “That’s how good they are and that’s how good we’re playing right now.”
Calipari said he understood the pressure that was on the Shockers. Not just Sunday, but throughout the entire season as they tried to maintain their undefeated record while ignoring the doubters whose voices became louder as the year progressed.
In some ways, his Wildcats dealt with the same thing.
“They have been through so much,” he said. “They have been attacked, they have been bludgeoned, (people say) they can’t play and that they’re not a (good) team. But they stayed together. It makes you strong.”
In the postgame handshake line, Calipari took extra time to congratulate Marshall, who then summoned his teenage son and daughter from the stands, embracing them before retreating to the locker room. Baker said the coach became emotional as he addressed his players and staff.
“Everyone has different reactions in moments like that,” assistant coach Chris Jans said. “It’s never easy to lose your last game—especially when you’ve never lost.”
Marshall had regained his composure by the time he addressed the media. The national coach of the year exuded pride.
“I don’t have any control over what folks want to believe or think they saw,” he said. “I know what’s in my heart. I know what I saw. I saw a very high-level basketball game between two incredibly gifted teams—a game that one team won by one basket, two points.
“I hope it goes down as a great one. I’m not ashamed to come out on the losing end. I just feel badly that I can’t coach these guys anymore this year.”
Wichita State will graduate Cleanthony Early—who was the best player on the floor Sunday with 31 points—and senior forwards Chadrack Lufile, Nick Wiggins and Kadeem Coleby.
But with starting guards VanVleet, Baker and Tekele Cotton returning along with forward Darius Carter, it won’t be a surprise if the Shockers are a high seed in the NCAA tournament once again next year.
Still, whatever happens in 2014-15, it will be hard for Wichita State—or any team, for that matter—to accomplish what it did in a season that Marshall tabbed as a “magic carpet ride.”
“There’s a lot of love in here,” Baker said in the postgame locker room. “It’s just unfortunate that something great like this can end with snap of a finger.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.