ST. LOUIS - It was a weird bit of role reversal. Preseason No. 1 Kentucky came in as the giant-killer. Undefeated Wichita State, at 35-0, was the giant in the eyes of everyone but the NCAA selection committee, which overloaded the Midwest Regional with powerful programs.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said the third-round throwdown on Sunday at Scottrade Center "was an Elite Eight game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four. That's how good they are, and that's how good we're playing now. This game should have been played later, but I'm happy we won."
The Shockers were every bit as tough as last season's Final Four team, but Cleanthony Early's brilliant 31-point performance wasn't enough to get past Kentucky's Fab Four freshmen, Julius Randle, James Young and Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who showed their mettle down the stretch of a 78-76 victory.
It came down to the last three seconds, when Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall called a timeout to set up the final play. Early and Ron Baker (20 points) each had shot 4-for-6 on three-pointers, but the 6-9 Randle bothered the inbounds pass and Kentucky's switching defense took them away long enough to force the ball to point guard Fred VanVleet at the top of the arc, where Calipari wanted it.
VanVleet was MVP of the Missouri Valley Conference, but he had only four points and wound up 0-for-4 from three-point range when his potential game-winner thudded against the back of the rim. Suddenly, the Shockers were 35-1 and Kentucky (26-10) was moving on to face defending national champ Louisville in the Sweet 16.
"We had a shot in the air from the MVP of our league who is a clutch performer," Marshall said. "It didn't go in this time."
Early got open all the way across the court from inbounds passer Tekele Cotton, but it happened too late for him to get the final touch on a 12-for-17 shooting day. "It's bittersweet," Early said. "I wanted it to end a little different, but it is what it is."
After an inconsistent season in which the Wildcats fell out of the Top 25 at one point, their freshmen leaped for joy at the buzzer. Randle was a monster in the middle with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Young had 13 points, including a three that put Kentucky up for good at 73-71 with 1:41 left. The twin terrors at guard, Andrew Harrison (20 points) and Aaron Harrison (19), were major factors driving and getting to the foul line repeatedly down the stretch.
"For the first time, the new [hand-checking] rules worked against us," Marshall said. "That was a big key. We couldn't defend the foul line at the end."
It was frustrating for the Shockers to face Kentucky before they had a chance to work their way into the tournament. "It's tough to see us go out like this," Baker said. "We all wanted more. We had a great year, and it's unfortunate we won't be playing next week."