Wichita State falls tantalizingly short of miracle - NBC Sports

Wichita State falls tantalizingly short of miracle
Underdog Shockers narrowly miss chance to join rarified sports air
AP
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall and his charges were left heartbroken on Saturday night.
April 7, 2013, 4:04 am

There's a reason they're called miracles. The Lorenzo Charles dunk to give N.C. State its national championship in 1983 . the Kirk Gibson homer . Rulon Gardner's wrestling gold medal . Tom Watson's chip-in . the Music City Miracle . the Miracle on Ice . there's a reason they're called sports miracles. And the reason is that they are so unlikely. So rare. They require EVERYTHING to go right.

That's why almost every near miracle ends in anticlimax.

Wichita State should have pulled off a sports miracle on Saturday night. The Shockers deserved it. Everybody thought so. Before the game started, the Shockers were given no chance to beat Louisville in the Final Four and little chance to keep the game close. Louisville came into the NCAA Tournament as the best team in America, and have given no indication of being anything else.

Wichita State came into the tournament as a nine seed and at one point during the season lost three straight games to Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois.

Really, the Shockers did everything to live up to its nickname.

And . the miracle didn't happen. It didn't happen for the strangest reasons. It didn't happen because of a walk-on who almost never played. It didn't happen because of a role-player who has had serious injuries in BOTH shoulders. It didn't happen because of a late call that could have gone another way. But that's the point, isn't it? That's why miracles happen so rarely. It all has to go right. It so rarely does.

With about 13 minutes left in the game, Wichita State led Louisville by 12 and it was all going right for the Shockers then. The Cardinals' star Russ Smith missed a three-point shot -- the Shockers checked and hounded him all night -- and Wichita State's Ehimen Orupke got the rebound, and he was fouled, and if you could have stopped the game right there . well, you can't, of course.

But up to that moment, Wichita State had played a game for the ages. Louisville's game is pressure -- the Cardinals press full-court, and they send waves of defenders at the ball, and they double-team from every angle, and teams bend to their will. But Wichita State would not bend. At the 13-minute mark, the Shockers had four turnovers. That's all. Four. After every made basket, they would give the ball to the referee to slow down the pace, and they would set up their in-bounds play, and they would confidently race through the press like it was a maze they'd memorized.

Meanwhile, Louisville couldn't do much of anything against the Wichita State defense. The five starters shot a combined 10-for-33 and two them didn't score the entire game. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall had scripted the most brilliant game plan, and his players were executing it flawlessly, and yes it really seemed like the miracle would happen. Even a few of the Louisville players wondered, leaving Louisville coach Rick Pitino to yell, "We're going to win this game," again and again.

Then a bunch of crazy things happened. First, Orupke air-balled his free throw. He's a 39% free throw shooter, so that might not have been so crazy. But there was a rather telling sound from the crowd when it happened, an odd hoot that sounded like a mix of dread (from those rooting for the upset) and hope (from the Louisville faithful).

Then, Louisville's Tim Henderson got the ball. It's quite likely you have not heard of Tim Henderson, even if you closely follow Louisville. He is a walk-on from Louisville -- both his parents went to the school. He averaged roughly three minutes a game during the season, though significantly less than that in close games. He didn't play at all in those.

He was in this game because, well, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was kind of out of ideas. His starters were flailing. Pitino figured he would put Henderson into the game and maybe give the team a little boost of energy. It was a hunch sparked by desperation. He never expected what happened next. Henderson got the ball in the corner, and . he shot it.

And he swished a three-pointer.

"I was shocked," Pitino would say. "Not shocked he made it. Just that he had the gumption to take it. Then take it AGAIN."

Now, Louisville's press started to dig in. "Yeah, first you get used to (the press)," Wichita State's Ron Baker said. "Then they increase the intensity of their pressure. It kind of hits you in waves." The waves hit, and the Shockers just started to play too fast, which is what the Louisville press does to teams. The Shockers had played such a zen-like game for so long, so calm, so sure, so slow. Then, the press sped them up, and they missed a couple of open shots and turned over the ball five times in seven possessions and they no longer looked like a team in control.

Louisville's other hero of the night -- Luke Hancock -- took control. Hancock is a pretty remarkable story. He transferred from George Mason. He had hurt both shoulders -- his right shoulder was hurt so badly that there was serious doubt whether he would play at all this year (after the Wichita State game, he had ice wrapped around his shoulder like he was a pitcher who had just thrown nine innings).

Everybody around the Louisville program loves Hancock. There's something about him. He so impressed everyone with his leadership that he was named a co-captain before he played a single game at Louisville. It was Hancock, you will no doubt remember, who immediately went to Kevin Ware after he suffered that gruesome leg injury in the game against Duke. The instinct, no doubt, would be to back away. Hancock moved closer and prayed. Everybody around the program thinks the world of the guy.

But let's face it, he was still a role player who came off the bench most of the year to shoot a few three-pointers and loosen up the defense. In the final 11 minutes of the game Saturday, though, he was a superstar. Hancock scored 14 points, grabbed a couple of boards, made two key steals. He hit three-pointers, he drove to the lane and showed off a George Gervin like finger-roll, and he made the play that saved the game in the last 10 seconds.

He was at the free throw line with Louisville up three. He missed his free throw, and it was rebounded by Wichita State's Ron Baker. So the Shockers looked to have one last shot to tie the game and keep the miracle alive. Then Hancock reached in, grabbed the ball, and made a strong enough play for it that the official ruled it a jump ball -- which gave the ball back to Louisville.

I don't think it should have been ruled a jump ball. Baker had ripped the ball away from Hancock, and I'm not so sure he ever really lost possession of it. And, anyway, the officials should have let the players decide the game, given Wichita State a chance to take the big shot. But the referee made the call, Hancock made the play, and Louisville held on to the win.

"I don't think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State," Pitino would say when it ended. "They are great."

On the other side, Gregg Marshall seemed to fight back tears. He gave all credit to Louisville, but he wanted to say something else. "I want to thank the gentlemen to my left (the players on the podium) and everyone else in my locker room for taking us on one incredible ride . They certainly proved that not only do they belong, but they can play with the best."

They did prove that. But they also ended up heartbroken. It's the sad thing about miracles. They so rarely happen.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski