LOS ANGELES — Cleanthony Early kept stealing glances 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 cap: "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."
Wichita State is going to Atlanta, and these Shockers are no longer a surprise after the way the ninth seeds held off Ohio State in the West Region final.
Malcolm Armstead scored 14, Fred Van Vleet bounced in a big basket with a minute left and Wichita State earned its first trip to the Final Four since 1965 with a 70-66 win Saturday over the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Van Vleet scored 12 as the Shockers (30-8) took down the No. 2 seed 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."
Wichita State is 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 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. … It feels good, and it feels even better that I could experience it with these guys who had to struggle so hard to get here."
Wichita State roared to a 20-point lead with 11 minutes left, but LaQuinton Ross scored 15 of his 19 after halftime, leading a rally that got the Buckeyes within three in the final minutes.
Tekele Cotton hit a 3 for Wichita State with 2:20 left and grabbed a key offensive rebound moments later, allowing VanVleet to score on a shot that bounced all over the rim. Ron Baker and Cotton hit last-minute free throws.
"The way we shot coming into the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, everything was falling," said OSU's Deshaun Thomas, who finished with 21 points but whose team shot just 24 percent in the first half. "Today, it just wasn't our night. Nothing was falling."
"We're happy, but I'm still shocked," big man Carl Hall said. "We've got a team full of fighters. I brought them all together near the end and said, 'No matter what happens, I love y'all.' We had to fight so hard."