ST. LOUIS – John Calipari stood frozen on the Kentucky sideline. Every player on the Wichita State bench held his breath. Everything seemed to stop inside the Scottrade Center as Fred VanVleet let loose with a 3-pointer that could have kept the Shockers perfect.
When it bounced harmlessly off the rim, everything was set in motion once again.
Calipari spontaneously leaped into the air, bad hip and all, as the eighth-seeded Wildcats poured off their bench to celebrate their 78-76 victory over the Midwest Region’s top seed.
The players from Wichita State slumped to their seats, their faces buried in their jerseys.
“I’ve been doing this so long. I’ve been in wars,” Calipari said later. “You all understand this was an Elite Eight game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four.”
It certainly had that kind of drama.
Andrew Harrison had 20 points, Aaron Harrison had 19 and Julius Randle contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats (26-10).
Cleanthony Early scored 31 points and Ron Baker had 20 for the Shockers (35-1), who hadn’t lost since last year’s Final Four while taking an entire city — and state — on quite a ride.
“You’re going to go through some humps in your life, kind of like this one. It’s tough to see us go out like this,” Baker said. “At the end of the day, someone’s got to go home.”
The showdown Sunday matched the bluest of the blue-bloods, the most successful program in Division I history with eight national titles, against a gritty bunch of upstarts from Wichita State that was trying to become the first team to finish off a perfect season since Indiana in 1976.
The game went back and forth the entire way.
Kentucky finally taking a 73-71 lead when James Young knocked down a 3-pointer with less than 2 minutes to go. Early answered with a basket for Wichita State, and Andrew Harrison made two free throws for Kentucky. Baker banked in a 3 for the Shockers, and Randle made two more foul shots for the Wildcats.
“Both teams were making plays,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said later, his voice sounding tired. “Back and forth, back and forth.”
Early hit two free throws with 9.8 seconds left got the Shockers within 77-76, and they got their chance to add another chapter to their miraculous story when Andrew Harrison made the second of two free throws and Early pulled down the rebound.
VanVleet raced up court and called timeout with 3.2 seconds left.
Marshall drew up a play that had Tekele Cotton inbounding the ball to VanVleet, and after a couple dribbles he took a shot from the top of the key. But it was wide the entire way, clanking off the rim and sending the Wildcats pouring onto the court to celebrate.
“We just felt so good beating a great team,” said Andrew Harrison, who considered sitting the game out after hurting his elbow in a second-round win over Kansas State. “It shows how much work we’ve put in, how much we’re getting better.”
Tennessee 83, Mercer 63
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Jarnell Stokes had 17 points and a career-high-tying 18 rebounds, and Tennessee denied Mercer a second straight upset in the NCAA tournament.
Josh Richardson had a career-high 26 points and Antonio Barton added 18 for the 11th-seeded Vols (24-12), who outrebounded Mercer 41-19 and kept the Southeastern Conference perfect in the tournament.
Iowa State 85, North Carolina 83
In San Antonio, DeAndre Kane drove for the game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds left and No. 3 seed Iowa State advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000.
The Cyclones (28-7) head to Madison Square Garden next week to face No. 7 seed Connecticut.
Virginia 78, Memphis 60
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Joe Harris scored 16 points and top-seeded Virginia shot 56 percent, earning its first trip to the NCAA tournament round of 16 in nearly two decades.
Stanford 60, Kansas 57
In St. Louis, Dwight Powell had 15 points and seven rebounds and No. 10 seed Stanford wrapped up its second straight upset at the free throw line.
Freshman Andrew Wiggins had just four points on 1-for-6 shooting with four turnovers in what could have been his final college game for Kansas (25-10).
UCLA 77, Stephen F. Austin 60
In San Diego, Jordan Adams scored 19 points and UCLA reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008.
Baylor 85, Creighton 55
In San Antonio, Isaiah Austin and Brady Heslip each scored 17 points and Baylor shut down Creighton’s Doug McDermott with suffocating defense, ending the career of the one of the most prolific scorers in college history.
Arizona 84, Gonzaga 61
In San Diego, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 18 points each, and Arizona looked every bit the No. 1 seed in the West.