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Before Wichita's Missed Final Shot, UK's Win Was Already a Classic

ST. LOUIS — Fred VanVleet’s face never changed Sunday, and it wasn’t about to change when the Wichita State point guard somehow got a clean look at the shot that would have kept the Shockers undefeated and headed toward the Sweet 16, and would have sent Kentucky back to Kentucky for good on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Willie Cauley-Stein leaped toward VanVleet, and as he hurtled forward, he saw the same thing he had seen all day from the Shockers’ metronomic point guard. It was the face of quiet confidence, the face of a player who had led his team in 35 games without a loss.

“This dude, his face never changed throughout the whole game,” Cauley-Stein said of VanVleet. “You can just tell he’s locked in to the game. He plays so smooth, and I’m just like, if this dude gets a clean look, it’s going bottoms.

“And I looked, and it was wide right. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s crazy. I don’t know how he missed that.’ ”

Kentucky had won 78-76, advancing to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats will play—yes—Louisville on Friday in the regional semifinal in nearby Indianapolis, a straight shot up I-64 about 100 miles from Louisville, and it didn’t take long for that to set in. But basketball is fragile. VanVleet had been so good Sunday, just like every other damn player on the court for both teams, and once he let go of that shot with about a second to play, all 10 players on the court were helpless. Thirty-nine minutes and 59 seconds of basketball had elapsed, and that wasn’t enough. One more second would be. The stakes made Cauley-Stein uncomfortable, because all of that work is left for a single shot to resolve. As exciting as it is, whether it’s fair is another issue entirely.

“I remember when I was subbing in for Alex, and he came up there and started talking, and I said, ‘Bro, I do not like this,’” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s too hairy right now, especially when it’s the last shot and your season’s on the line with it. You’ve just got to throw it up, and you don’t worry about if you’re making or missing. That’s the hardest thing to guard, because you can literally just throw up anything and if it goes in, it goes in. You’re not thinking if it’s not. You’re just playing off your instincts. Just throw it in there and try to make it, and that’s the hardest to guard.”

The game seemed primed for a classic finish, but ultimately its final play won’t be its most memorable. But really, what one play from that game could stand out over the rest? More impressive than any single play was that any one you could pick out, with the obvious exception of the last one, had a near-immediate answer. Julius Randle’s spinning, double-clutching shot-put of a three-point play gave Kentucky a 53-49 lead with 11:38 to play. Eighteen seconds later, Nick Wiggins buried a three.

A few minutes later, Cleanthony Early scored to give the Shockers a 60-57 lead with 7:26 to play. As the shot clock was winding down on Kentucky’s next possession, Aaron Harrison threw a three off the backboard and in. The game was tied. Ron Baker responded immediately with another three. Andrew Harrison drove and scored. Sixteen seconds later, Baker fed Early for another three. Wichita State led 66-62 with 5:50 to go.

Over that minute-and-a-half span, all five shots either team took went in. None were easy. Three were threes, and none were particularly open. It was exhilarating. The game was heightened, largely because of the selection committee’s missteps in bracketing these teams to face each other this early in the tournament, and neither team was going to back down. By the game’s end, Kentucky had shot 54 percent, and the Shockers were 55.1 percent. That these teams played as impeccably as they did makes sense; both maintained improbable performance levels throughout the whole game in a matchup that should have been impossible to happen two games in to the tournament.

It took a near-perfect game from one of the most purely (and rawly) talented teams in recent college basketball memory to finally beat Wichita State, and even then, a conference player of the year had a shot in the air to win the game as the final buzzer was breathing in. No matter what happened once the shot got to the basket, the outcome was going to be one that one team didn’t deserve. After all that happened Sunday in St. Louis, the most improbable thing yet, at least in the vacuum of that game, had happened: A big shot didn’t fall and, somehow, Kentucky had won.

Written by James Pennington of KY Forward whose coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank

Photo via Wichita State Athletics