LOS ANGELES -- A few years ago, Carl Hall told his mother that he was willing to risk his life to play basketball.
Jackie Fields was understandably disturbed by the idea, because her son’s heart condition, which prompted fainting spells, had disrupted his career shortly after high school.
“I was willing to live with the situation I put myself in,” Hall said Thursday night after guiding Wichita State to a 72-58 victory over La Salle in the Sweet 16 at Staples Center. “If anything happened, like if I possibly died or something on the court, I told her I would’ve died happy because I would have died doing something that I loved to do.”
On Thursday, the Shockers toyed with the Explorers to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1981.
On film, Hall had noticed that La Salle’s Jerrell Wright -- the only big man in his team’s starting rotation -- encountered problems whenever he tried to run with agile post players. At Staples Center, Hall pushed the pace.
He made his first six shots. By the time he missed, Wichita State had a 25-14 advantage.
The Shockers led 38-22 after outscoring the Explorers 24-10 in the paint before halftime. Nearly a minute into the second half, they were ahead by 22 points (44-22 with 18:48 to play).
La Salle played hard but couldn’t cut its deficit to single digits. From 9:03 to 6:40, Malcolm Armstead recorded nine of his 18 points. The 13th-seeded Explorers didn’t rally again.
Wichita State went 4-for-7 from the 3-point line in the second half. Four Shockers scored eight points or more. And they frustrated La Salle star Ramon Galloway (4-for-15, 11 points).
The victory began with Hall’s effort inside.
“Carl Hall set the tone with just outrunning their bigs, and then we got some good stops,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “We had a commanding lead early, and just were able to play with that cushion throughout. So congratulations to them, and we're really excited to be moving on to the Elite Eight.”
Neurocardiogenic syncope is defined by the National Center for Biotechnology Information as “a transient loss of consciousness."
Hall said he fainted for the first time while in high school. Doctors told him he was dehydrated. And then it happened again. And again.
He was finally diagnosed with the condition, which temporarily derailed his career. He was playing for Middle Georgia College at the time.
And then, suddenly, he was working at a factory.
“It was hard for him,” Marshall said. “[Doctors] shut him down. The one thing that he loved in life was playing basketball. And they said 'You can’t play.'”
So he spent two years painting fluorescent lights for a local business.
He stayed in school, though. Hall worked the graveyard shift, then attended morning classes.
In the meantime, he stayed close to basketball by competing on playgrounds. As the desire to return to the organized game grew and his reservations subsided -- months after doctors had given him medical clearance to compete -- he spoke to the staff at Middle Georgia and asked for another chance.
He returned to that team for the 2009-10 season and transferred to Northwest Florida State for the 2010-11 campaign.
That’s where Marshall saw him.
“I said to my staff, ‘I want that guy right there. The guy with the hair,’” Marshall said about Hall, who cut off his dreadlocks before the NCAA tournament.
But Marshall was also fearful.
Shortly after he accepted the Wichita State job in 2007, he witnessed a high school player collapse and die on the floor. Guy Alang-Ntang, a prospect from Cameroon competing at a New Hampshire prep school, had just re-affirmed his commitment to Wichita State before the tragedy.
“He says, 'I want to come. I’m going to re-affirm my national letter of intent,'” Marshall said. “So I’m watching him play pickup and 15 minutes later he just lurches back and it’s over. That was my second day on the job.”
Although Hall hasn’t fainted since he played for Northwest Florida State, Marshall didn’t want that to happen to Hall when he arrived last season. But he also wanted the forward to be in playing shape.
It was a difficult task, however, because Hall was so nervous about strenuous drills. When he felt tired, he would just sit down while the rest of his teammates continued to run. He didn’t want to take the risk. Neither did Marshall.
“I didn’t want to be the coach who made him pass out or worse,” Marshall said.
So he told Hall that he had to push himself. Alone. And that’s what he did in the offseason. He rode his bike. He ran laps on the school’s track. And he conditioned his body so that it would allow him to race up the floor at Staples Center on Thursday.
The man who helped Wichita State reach the Elite Eight for the first time in more than 30 years is the product off a work ethic that defines Marshall’s entire program.
The Shockers have a blue-collar vibe that’s driven their unlikely success. This is a squad that will compete against Ohio State on Saturday for a shot at the Final Four, despite losing six Missouri Valley Conference regular-season games.
But the ninth-seeded Shockers (29-8) are jelling at the right time now that most of the team is healthy.
And they’re winning with a tenacity, edginess and grit that Hall displays each night. It’s a spirit that the program has showcased throughout this run.
“We’ve had our share of adversity this year and these guys just keep finding a way,” Marshall said.
As he walked off the court Thursday, Hall looked toward the Shockers fans in the stands and smiled. When he waved his arms, they all rose and cheered.
It was a blissful ending for Hall and his teammates -- but definitely not one that the senior envisioned when his medical condition halted his career.
“It’s like I’m in a dream right now, you know, and I’m just trying to take advantage of this whole opportunity,” he said.