ST. LOUIS — John Calipari stood frozen on the Kentucky sideline. Every player on the Wichita State bench held his breath. Everything seemed to stop inside the Scottrade Center as Fred VanVleet let loose with a 3-pointer that could have kept the Shockers perfect.
When it bounced harmlessly off the rim, everything was set in motion once again.
Calipari spontaneously leaped into the air, bad hip and all, as the eighth-seeded Wildcats poured off their bench to celebrate their 78-76 victory over the Midwest Region’s top seed.
The boys from Wichita State slumped to their seats, their faces buried in their jerseys.
“I’ve been doing this so long. I’ve been in wars,” Calipari said later. “You all understand this was an Elite Eight game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four.”
It certainly had that kind of drama.
Andrew Harrison had 20 points, Aaron Harrison had 19 and Julius Randle contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats (26-10), who advanced to play bitter rival Louisville on Friday in Indianapolis, at long last looking like the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
Cleanthony Early scored 31 points and Ron Baker had 20 for the Shockers (35-1), who hadn’t lost since last year’s Final Four while taking an entire city — and state — on quite a ride.
“You’re going to go through some humps in your life, kind of like this one. It’s tough to see us go out like this,” Baker said. “At the end of the day, someone’s got to go home.”
The showdown Sunday matched the bluest of the blue-bloods, the most successful program in Division I history with eight national titles, against a gritty bunch upstarts from Wichita State that was trying to become the first team to finish off a perfect season since Indiana in 1976.