ST. LOUIS — Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein looked in the air, his heart having climbed to his throat, as Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet’s clean look at a potential game-winning 3-pointer headed for the bucket.
“That guy’s so smooth,” Cauley-Stein said. “His face never changes expression. I just knew if he got a clean look at it that we were in trouble.”
Instead, VanVleet’s shot sailed wide right and the Wildcats were rushing the floor moments later, winners of an epic Midwest Regional third-round game against the nation’s only undefeated team.
Forward James Young’s 3-pointer with 1:38 left on Sunday put No. 8-seeded Kentucky ahead for good as it eliminated the top-seeded Shockers 78-76 inside a raucous Scottrade Center.
Guard Andrew Harrison scored 20 points for Kentucky (26-10) and guard and twin brother Aaron Harrison added 19. Forward Julius Randle stuffed the stat sheet for 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Young finished with 13 points.
Andrew Harrison’s foul shot with 7.2 seconds remaining gave the Wildcats a two-point lead. After he missed the second shot, Wichita State (35-1) rebounded, rushed the ball into the frontcourt and called timeout with 3.2 seconds left.
Kentucky took away the Shockers’ first two options — forward Cleanthony Early, who led all scorers with 31 points, and guard Ron Baker, who had 20. That left VanVleet, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, to take the shot.
A 43.7 percent 3-point shooter on the season, VanVleet used a screen to maneuver around a defender and pulled up from 23 feet, but the shot wasn’t close.
“That was a great, great basketball game,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “At the end of it, they just made one more play than we did. But this team went 35-1 and they’ve given me more joy than I can imagine.”
The Shockers were trying to become the first men’s team in college basketball history to go 40-0, a feat the Baylor women accomplished two years. Despite connecting on 55.1 percent of their shots from the field and committing only nine turnovers, they failed to hush the skeptics who said their lofty record was a byproduct of playing in the weakened Missouri Valley Conference.
Wichita State led 37-31 after a first half in which both teams shot 54.2 from the field. The differences came in turnovers, where the Wildcats made eight to the Shockers’ four, and an 8-1 advantage in made free throws by Wichita State.
After Early stuck a 3-pointer to start the second half, Kentucky scored 10 straight points to take a 41-40 edge. From there, the teams played at a national championship level as a bi-partisan crowd of 19,676 shook the arena.
“You play in a game like this,” Cauley-Stein said, “and when there are 15 minutes left, it feels like there are 30 seconds left and it’s a one-point game. That’s how hard everyone is playing.”
Early scored 10 points in less than 4 1/2 minutes of the second half, finishing the run with a 3-pointer from the right corner with 4:35 remaining for a 69-64 lead.
Back came the Wildcats, scoring on their last nine possessions against one of the nation’s best defensive teams. They attacked the basket aggressively, converting 11 of 14 free throws, and got just enough stops to complete the comeback.
“Bittersweet,” Early said of his last game. “It is what it is.”
Now Kentucky faces commonwealth archrival Louisville on Friday night in the regional semis at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in a rematch of a Dec. 28 game won by the Wildcats 73-66.
“We never feel like an underdog,” Cauley-Stein said. “We could be a 16 seed and play a number one seed and we’d feel like we were supposed to win. Look at the name on our chest … that says a lot.”
NOTES: This is the first time Kentucky and Wichita State have played each other. … Wildcats freshman F Julius Randle’s double-double in Friday night’s second round win over Kansas State was his 21st this season, third-most in program history. … The last time Kentucky faced a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament was in a 2011 regional semifinal, knocking off Ohio
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