Shockers’ run ends in Final Four loss to Cardinals

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ATLANTA (AP) - Gregg Marshall called Saturday night’s game against Louisville the most important he’d ever coached, and quite possibly the most important game Wichita State had ever played.

If not for the final 10 minutes, there would have been a more important one Monday night.

The plucky underdogs from the Missouri Valley Conference watched a 12-point lead slip away, and the mighty Cardinals showed their championship mettle down the stretch, beating Wichita State 72-68 and preventing the ninth-seeded Shockers from playing for their first national title.

When the game clock struck zero, Marshall stoically shook hands with Louisville coach Rick Pitino, and then retreated to the postgame news conference, where his voice was clearly strained.

“There’s such a group in that locker room you grow to love,” Marshall said quietly. “They’re fun to coach, they’re great character kids, they’re tough as nails. But we didn’t say, `Bye,’ and we didn’t say, `This is it.’ This is just the beginning, just the beginning for us.”

Nobody gave the Shockers much of a chance to make it to Atlanta, but they kept proving folks wrong, beating No. 1 Gonzaga and second-seeded Ohio State along the way.

And in their first Final Four since 1965, they had the Cardinals on the ropes.

They led 26-25 at halftime and slowly drew away in the second half, scoring on nine of their first 11 possessions. Tekele Cotton’s basket with 14:16 left gave Wichita State a 43-32 lead and forced Pitino signal to call for a timeout.

But after going more than 25 minutes without a turnover, they started to mount against the Cardinals’ frustrating full-court press. The missed shots, each one sounding like a canon blast as it clanked off the rim, became more numerous as Wichita State’s legs started to tire.

“Down the stretch, we were just loose with the ball,” said primary ball-handler Malcolm Armstead, who was mired in foul trouble. “We just didn’t take care of it, pretty much.”

Cleanthony Early had 24 points and 10 rebounds for the Shockers, including six straight in the final 2 minutes, as they tried to hung tough with the Big East champions.

It just wasn’t quite enough.

Carl Hall, whose nose was bloodied early in the game, added 13 points for Wichita State, and Ron Baker finished with 11 _ though it will almost certainly be his inability to wrestle loose a jump ball, trailing by three with eight seconds left, will stick out in the freshman’s mind.

Louisville got possession, and Russ Smith’s free throw put the game out of reach.

Still, with its eclectic hodge-podge of players, Wichita State (30-9) managed to eclipse its season record for wins on the way to becoming the first team from the Missouri Valley Conference to reach the Final Four since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979.

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