Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 39 points and Julius Randle added 13 with 10 rebounds for Kentucky, which advances to play rival Louisville, a No. 4 seed, in the Sweet 16. The Shockers, after an unprecedented 35-0 start, are done.
Here are five observations from the thrilling Kentucky victory:
This game was a joy to watch. It justified the hype. Kentucky came out with something to prove -- that it could play to its potential on the biggest stage in college. Wichita State was just Wichita State, operating with precision on both ends as VanVleet ran the controls of perhaps the nation’s most balanced team. Thing is, the Shockers, despite the questions about schedule quality that followed its 35-0 start, didn’t play with a chip on their shoulders. They played WSU basketball, which is something to behold, even in defeat.
Credit to Kentucky coach John Calipari, who obviously pushed the right buttons with the Wildcats in the locker room. Andrew Harrison, nursing an elbow injury and questionable to play, and his twin brother, Aaron, ran things early like veterans. Kentucky controlled the glass, and when Wichita State asserted control with a run in the first half, the Wildcats did not act like freshmen. They continued to hit big shots and used their superior skill to complete the comeback after halftime.
Take nothing away from Wichita State for ending its season in the round of 32. Kentucky was far from a normal No. 8 seed, and this game was played at the level of a Final Four contest. The selection committee offered no favors to the previously unbeaten Shockers with this draw. Couldn’t Wichita State have matched against Pittsburgh or Gonzaga? Any team but Kentucky, which entered the tournament with a ceiling as high as the all the top seeds. It was a great feat to start 35-0, never accomplished before, and there is no shame in bowing out against the Wildcats.
Randle simply took over. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman was quiet in the first half with just one field goal and four rebounds. But somebody said something to the future first-round NBA draft pick at halftime that awoke the giant. He slammed home a miss on the first UK possession of the second half, then converted another offensive rebound and punctuated Kentucky’s sensational open to the second half with a spinning bucket and three-point play. When Randle is on, the Shockers -- like every team in the college game -- can’t stop him.
Let’s hope the NCAA never considers moving these second- and third-round games into the big domes that host the next four rounds of tournament play. The environment on Sunday at the Scottrade Center, with more than 19,000 fans packed into it, was phenomenal as Kentucky and Wichita State traded punches. The fans in blue and yellow were engaged from tip to finish. The drive to St. Louis was manageable for fans of both teams, just how it should be as often as possible for these early-round games.