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The Shockers also energized the state of Kansas with an improbable run _ its last team left standing after Kansas and Kansas State were ousted earlier in the tournament.

“Last year, we played the No. 1 RPI schedule in the nation, and this year we played a top-five schedule, and I don’t think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State,” Pitino said. “It’s tough for Wichita State to lose this game, because they played great.”

Better than anybody could have expected at the start of the season.

The Shockers lost all five starters from a team that was a No. 5 seed in the tournament last year, along with them most of their scoring and a whole lot of their toughness. But a most bizarre mixture of players filled the void, someone always coming through when times were tough.

There was Early, the overlooked junior college star who finally got his shot on basketball’s biggest stage. And Armstead, who transferred from Oregon and had to pay his own way last season while redshirting, making ends meet by working at an auto dealership.

There was Hall, who once worked at a lighting factory not far from the site of the Final Four and then overcame a heart condition that causes irregular beats to become the soul of the team.

All of them took the small school on the prairie on an incredible ride.

“It’s just a mix of emotions, of feelings,” Early said. “It hurts to have to lose and be at the end of the season, but these guys fought to the end, we had a great season, and we need to keep our heads high, because we know the grind doesn’t stop.”