LOS ANGELES - Cleanthony Early kept stealing glances down at the hat in his hands while he waited for his turn to climb the stepladder, scissors in hand. The Wichita State forward seemed stunned at the words embroidered on his new ballcap: "Final Four Atlanta."
"It's crazy. I still can't believe we're here," Early said. "You try to expect it, but you expect a lot of things that don't happen. This really happened."
Believe it. No. 9 Wichita State is going to Atlanta and is no longer a surprise after the way it held off mighty Ohio State 70-66 in Saturday's West Region final.
Malcolm Armstead scored 14 points, Fred Van Vleet bounced in a big basket with 1 minute left, and Wichita State earned its second trip to the Final Four with the win over the Buckeyes, who outlasted Arizona 73-70 in Thursday's Sweet 16 game.
Van Vleet scored 12 points as the Shockers (30-8) followed up last week's win over top-ranked Gonzaga with a nail-biting victory over the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-8), whose 11-game winning streak ended one short of their second straight Final Four. Wichita State's 20-point lead in the second half dwindled to three in the final minutes, but several Shockers stepped up with big plays to stop the surge, heeding coach Gregg Marshall's halftime command to "play angry."
All that anger turned into a joyous postgame party at midcourt, even though the Shockers realize they've got more work to do.
Wichita State is just the fifth team seeded ninth or higher to reach the Final Four since seeding began in 1979, but the second in three years following 11th-seeded VCU's improbable run in 2011.
"Last year we were watching all this on television," said Early, who scored 12 points despite spraining his ankle in the second half. "Now I'm looking at a hat that says 'Final Four Atlanta' with my team on it."
Wichita State roared to a 20-point lead with 11 minutes to play, but LaQuinton Ross scored 15 of his 19 points after halftime, leading a rally that got OSU within three.
Tekele Cotton hit a clutch three-pointer for WSU with 2:20 left and grabbed a key offensive rebound moments later, allowing Van Vleet to score on a shot that bounced all over the rim before dropping. Ron Baker and Cotton hit last-minute free throws to secure the win.
"We're happy, but I'm still shocked," said WSU forward Carl Hall.
• Orange crush: 'Cuse in Final Four after routing Marquette. Page B6
• Women's Sweet 16: Georgia stuns No. 1-seeded Stanford. Page B5
• Updated men's bracket. Page B7