Of the eight basketball teams that came to EnergySolutions Arena last week for the NCAA Tournament, Wichita State seemed like the least interesting contestant.
But the Shockers made themselves endearing with their gritty defeats of Pittsburgh and Gonzaga, and just look at them now. After Thursday’s 72-58 victory over La Salle, WSU will play Ohio State on Saturday in the Elite Eight in Los Angeles.
The Shockers genuinely have a shot at the Final Four, after arriving quietly in Salt Lake City as a No. 9 seed.
Wichita State lacked the local ties of Gonzaga, New Mexico and Arizona. The Shockers could not match the underdog stories of Southern, Belmont and Harvard. But they’re the only ones still playing, and they’re deserving.
Sure, they got a break when No. 13 seed La Salle emerged from another West Region pod in Kansas City. That’s how the Shockers found themselves wearing white uniforms as a higher-seeded team in the Sweet 16. But they convincingly beat the Explorers, with defense, rebounding and effort — the same formula that worked at ESA. And it was fun to watch them Thursday, extending the tournament run that began here.
Malcom Armstead, the talkative guard, led WSU with 18 points. Carl Hall, the forward with the glasses, added 16 points and eight rebounds. Ron Baker, the guard who returned from injury only in March and hit those clutch shots against Gonzaga, scored 13. WSU held La Salle to 35.7-percent shooting, almost the same figure as Pitt and Gonzaga.
The only thing that could make this better is if Arizona had completed its upset of No. 2 Ohio State, ensuring that one of the Salt Lake City entrants would make the Final Four. But the Wildcats lost on a late 3-pointer, 73-70. So the Shockers will take on OSU, back in the black uniforms they wore at ESA. I’d love to see them in the same attire in Atlanta next week.