After watching the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t efforts of the Utah Jazz over the past few weeks in their supposedly urgent push for the NBA playoffs, Thursday’s first game of the NCAA Tournament in the Jazz’s building brought something entirely different: authentic urgency.
By the winning Wichita State Shockers.
That’s the absolute best characteristic of the madness of March. Every game means everything. Every game is a seventh game. There’s no setup for whatever comes next. There’s only right now. It’s immediate, both the spoils and the heartbreak.
Split emotion, then, was everywhere here.
From WSU’s senior guard Malcolm Armstead, who led his team with 22 points: "You got to leave it all on the floor at the end of the day and play for your teammates and brothers."
From WSU junior forward Cleanthony Early, who scored 21 points: "Play like you want it. Play with passion and heart and things like that. That’s what we tried to do."
From Pitt’s senior guard Tray Woodall, who made 1 of 12 shots, turned the ball over five times, fouled out, and broke down in the postgame: "It’s a bitter taste in my mouth to end my career with one of the worst games I’ve ever played in my history. I’m sorry I let my team down. One of the worst games I’ve ever played."
When Pittsburgh and Wichita State took the court, it wasn’t the prettiest engagement. Far from it. College basketball rarely is, viewed through the elevated prism of what we’re used to seeing in the NBA. But the feeling with which the game is played is refreshing, especially in a setting like this.
Again, the Shockers gave amply in that regard. Efficiency was in shorter supply.
In this particular case, the grasping of the import of each possession seemed to adversely affect both the Panthers and the Shockers. The teams combined to hit 3 of 37 from beyond the arc. Terrible. There were badly shanked airballs, errant passes, travels and other turnovers, but there also were a couple of positives: tough defense and that care factor so high it punched you in the face.
At the end, the numbers illuminated on the board: WSU 73, Pitt 55.
Seated in the crowd, among other NBA personnel kings, were Miami’s Pat Riley and the Jazz’s Kevin O’Connor, probably checking out a few big men, including Pitt freshman Steven Adams and Wichita senior Ehimen Orukpe. Up in the next game: Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk.
Side note of no real significance: Adams, a 7-footer from New Zealand, is one of 18 siblings.
But nobody on the court on either team was concerning himself with what the pros thought. They were worried more about the business at hand, winning a game they had to win, which, as mentioned, is the beauty of the whole deal.
With the pep bands blowing their horns and beating their drums, with cheerleaders shaking their pom-pons and a Shocker mascot wearing a creepy expression on his face and what looked like an industrial-sized bucket of wheat on his head, and a crowd growing in size as the game wore on, Wichita Sate took control.
A nervous first half, during which the margin between the teams was no more than two points until the end, settled into an impressive second for the Shockers. Pitt, which, according to some measures, had the most efficient offense in the country, shot just 30 percent early and 35 percent overall.
WSU was worse — 28.6 percent — over the initial 20 minutes, but jacked that to 52 percent in the second. With each successful trip, the Shockers got calmer and more confident.
They were the No. 9 seed, coming from the Missouri Valley Conference, taking on the No. 8 from the Big East, seeking to justify itself, looking for something to prove. In reality, historically speaking, the 9s actually have a winning record against the 8s.
True to that form, Wichita State ousted the Panthers, and lived to play on.
And now it looks to play No. 1 Gonzaga to keep its emotional run alive.
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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