OMAHA, Neb. — The boys from Wichita State had been hearing it in text messages from friends and on social media from total strangers: Don’t let the chance to stick it to Kansas slip away.
The Shockers would never dream of it.
Finally getting a chance to play the school that continually spurns them, Fred VanVleet and the rest of the Missouri Valley champs rolled to a 78-65 victory over the second-seeded Jayhawks on Sunday, earning a trip to the Sweet 16 in the sweetest way possible.
“There’s so much to be said about this rivalry with Kansas,” VanVleet said, “but really, it’s all about the fans. What better story is there for Wichita State?”
The Shockers have tried for years to schedule a game against Kansas, but the dominant school in the Sunflower State always refused, arguing it would have nothing to gain. After the beating they got Sunday, it’s no wonder the Jayhawks never want anything to do with Wichita State.
Tekele Cotton scored 19 points for the seventh-seeded Shockers (30-4), and VanVleet finished with 17. Evan Wessel hit four 3-pointers and scored 12, helping his team advance to Cleveland for a Midwest regional semifinal against No. 3 seed Notre Dame.
“We don’t have McDonald’s All-Americans, we don’t have guys that have been in the spotlight and been given that pedestal,” VanVleet said. “We work for everything we’ve got, from managers to coaches to our preacher to, you know, whoever. We’ve scrapped and fought our whole lives.”
They didn’t stop Sunday. If anything, they scrapped harder.
“We’d been playing anybody else, it would have meant the same, advancing to the Sweet 16,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It just so happens we played an in-state team to go where we wanted to go, and they were much better than us.”
Devonte’ Graham and Perry Ellis had 17 points each, and Frank Mason added 16 for the Jayhawks (27-9), who blew an early eight-point lead and never really threatened in the second half.
As the final seconds ticked away, VanVleet started riling up an already boisterous section of Shockers fans. And when the game ended, coach Gregg Marshall strode across the floor with a wry smile on his face, reaching out to shake hands with several of them.
The buzz for the first meeting since 1993 between the schools separated by just 162 miles began to build on Selection Sunday. But by the time the Jayhawks beat New Mexico State and the Shockers survived Indiana, it had grown to a deafening roar.
With such pent-up emotion, the start was predictably sloppy.
The Shockers, who had seven turnovers total against the Hoosiers, had that many in the first half. Kansas fouled so often that Wichita State spent more time in the bonus than getting there.
It wasn’t even halftime yet when blood was first spilled. VanVleet was driving to the rim when his elbow caught Ellis’ nose, sending the Wichita native sprawling to the floor. Red droplets started sliding down his chin, and Ellis retreated to the locker room. When he returned, he had wads of cotton stuffed up his nostrils.
The Jayhawks were leading 24-16 at that point, but the Shockers pounced on their opportunity with Ellis off the floor. They didn’t allow another field goal for the final 6 minutes, going on a 13-2 closing kick that gave them a 29-26 lead at the break.
Led by the calm, cool play of VanVleet at the point and with Wessel knocking down just about every 3-pointer he tried, the Shockers had an answer for every salvo from the Big 12 champs.
When the Jayhawks scored four quick points to trim their deficit to 63-55 with 6 minutes to go, Wichita State broke their full-court press and Darius Carter breezed in for layup.
“We didn’t play very smart,” Self said. “We took bad shots, and rushed shots, and you know, basically gave them confidence.”