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Kentucky tops Wichita State in a game that exceeded expectations

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ST. LOUIS -- The inbounds play is called "Havlicek" because the Celtics legend is known for hitting big shot after big shot, and so that's what Gregg Marshall decided to name it. Havlicek. After John Havlicek, obviously. And when Fred VanVleet called a timeout with 3.2 seconds remaining, that's the word that came from Gregg Marshall's mouth.

Havlicek.

The play has three options.

VanVleet catching and shooting at the top of the key "was the third option," Wichita State associate head coach Chris Jans told me afterward. "But we got a good shot."

Indeed, the Shockers did.

VanVleet caught the inbounds pass, used a right-handed bounce to go left, then a left-handed bounce to go right, at which point he took advantage of a screen, got a clean look and let a shot fly with 1.8 seconds remaining. Ron Baker was standing in the right corner.

"I wasn't moving at all because I knew right then and there that he was going to put the shot up, and I wouldn't want anybody else taking it," Baker said. "We'll live with that every time."

****

Kentucky beat Wichita State on Sunday in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament.

The final score was 78-76.

Those are the exact numbers on the scoreboard above the court here at the Scottrade Center when VanVleet launched that 3-pointer at the buzzer, which is another way of sayingnVanVleet's 3-pointer at the buzzer did not go through the hoop. So Kentucky won and Wichita State lost, and Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Sweet 16 will be a blast.

That'll get a lot of attention in the coming days.

But before looking ahead, it's important to look back and do two things: 1) Appreciate this UK-WSU game for what it was, and 2) Respect the 35-1 season the Shockers just produced.

Let's start with No. 1.

No. 1: I wrote in advance of tipoff that Wichita State-Kentucky was the most compelling Round of 32 matchup in history, and, somehow, the game still exceeded expectations. Back and forth, big play after big play, it literally wasn't decided until the final buzzer sounded, and the announced crowd of 19,676 seemed to understand -- with every dribble, drive and dunk -- that it was watching something special, witnessing something great.

"You all understand this was an Elite Eight game, right?" Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "The winner of this should've gone to the Final Four."

The winner of this still might.

The Wildcats have been uneven all season, and their struggles are well-documented. But they performed brilliantly against Wichita State -- shooting 54.0 percent against one of the nation's best defenses. So, suddenly, anything seems possible for the preseason No. 1 team.

"To see us coming together as a team and getting better each game, and finally get a big win like that, I just enjoyed it," said UK freshman Julius Randle, who finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. "Everybody is happy. We just have to keep building on it."

Now let's focus on No. 2 for a moment.

No. 2: I haven't polled every college coach, but my guess is that all of them would love to have a season in which they won 97.2 percent of their games. That's what Wichita State just did, by the way. Don't ever forget that. And if that was easy to do, regardless of conference affiliation, then somebody besides Wichita State from a so-called mid-major conference would've probably done it in the past two decades. Don't ever forget that, either.

Still, this hurt.

Every Wichita State player I talked with told me that. They all think this team is better than the team that went to last year's Final Four, and they all thought they were headed for another Final Four despite the Midwest Regional being stacked. Consequently, they seemed stunned in the locker room, in disbelief that it was over. They had not lost a game in more than 11 months. They didn't plan on losing a game till at least November.

"I'm a little bummed out," Baker said. "You wish you could go back, but you can't."

I'll be honest, I thought, that if Wichita State lost short of the Sweet 16 that the skeptics who had flooded Twitter and other social media sites in recent months would leap to call the Shockers frauds and all sorts of other stuff. That didn't really happen, though.

Why?

Because Wichita State was that impressive in defeat. The Shockers didn't win, I know. But they went basket-for-basket with a roster of future NBA Draft picks, and, more important, they looked the part. That doesn't make the loss sting any less. But it's something.

****

By the time Sunday ended Iowa State had used a crazy comeback to beat North Carolina, and Tennessee had advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 20-point victory (and despite being a No. 11 seed). So there were lot of nice stories in college basketball, and there will be more later this week, then again the following week. That's the awesome thing about this event. It provides drama and then, before you can really catch your breath, more drama.

On some level, it all blends together.

On some level, it can all just become a big blur.

But this UK-WSU game felt bigger than normal, better than usual, and it's the type of game that'll be remembered for a long time, maybe forever. The final play was called Havlicek, and it didn't go how Wichita State planned. But for a moment a ball hung in the air, a game in the balance, and that moment is the foundation of every great NCAA Tournament.

"It was a very high-level basketball game between two incredibly gifted teams," Marshall said. "And one team won -- by one play, one basket, two points."

 
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