Malcolm Armstead curled around two defenders trying to trap him and wheeled his way up the court at EnergySolutions Arena.
He could have pulled the ball out. He probably should have. His Wichita State Shockers, the No. 9 seed in the West region, were leading No. 8 Pitt by double digits with less than five minutes to go in their second-round matchup.
Armstead instead found teammate Ron Baker, who immediately whipped his head around and saw sixth-year senior Carl Hall streaking to the hoop. Baker made the pass, and Hall finished Wichita State’s 73-55 win over the Panthers with an exclamation-mark slam.
Hall roared and threw his pulsating arms into the air, screaming with the Wichita State faithful.
It was his moment. It was his team’s moment. The Shockers out-Panthered Pittsburgh by superseding the Big East mantra of “defensive toughness and rebounding.”
“You gotta leave it all on the floor at the end of the day and play for your teammates and brothers,” said Armstead, who scored 22 points and dished five assists in his NCAA Tournament debut.
The Shockers outrebounded the Panthers 37-32 and forced 15 turnovers against a Jamie Dixon-led program that emphasized ball security. They also held the Panthers to 35 percent shooting and 1 of 17 from 3-point range.
“For people who haven’t seen us play,” Dixon said, “this wasn’t our team.”
Thing is, Wichita State didn’t shoot all that well, either. The Shockers shot 38 percent and went 2 for 20 from distance.
But they were assertive. They were hungry to play a team mirroring their style. The Shockers obliged their coach’s wish to hit first.
“I don’t know what else to say other than our guys played very, very well and took the fight to them,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “That’s hitting first.”
When shots avoided the net in the first half, the team kept pressing, getting to the free-throw line and slowing down the game.
In all, the Shockers made 33 of 41 free throws.
Then the trio of Armstead, Cleanthony Early (21 points) and Hall (11 points) took over in the second half.
With sophomore Tekele Cotton handcuffing Pitt star Tray Woodall — the senior finished with two points on 1-of-12 shooting, one assist and five turnovers — the well-roundedness of the Shockers slowly put the Panthers to bed.
Last year’s first-round loss to VCU now couldn’t be more of a distant memory. The Shockers took the fight to a storied program and made sure the tale would be about the guys in yellow and black.
“This group thinks they can beat anyone in the country,” Marshall said, “and they’re not intimated. They’re not afraid.”