ST. LOUIS — The difference between victory and defeat, cheers and tears, sweet redemption and painful regret can shrink to near insignificance. What separated Kentucky and Wichita State faded to gray twilight Sunday.
After a last shot bounced off the rim and Kentucky won 78-76, Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall evoked a name that will forever symbolize how one moment in a basketball game can so completely divide two teams giving championship effort: Christian Laettner.
"There was no magic shot at the end with Laettner," he said, "and (John) Pelphrey defending it and all that.
"But it had the makings of it."
Point guard Fred VanVleet, the Missouri Valley Conference's Most Valuable Player, launched the potential game-winner from the top of the key, coincidentally only a few feet on a basketball court from where Laettner's shot beat the buzzer and broke Kentucky's heart in the 1992 NCAA East Regional finals.
"Praying and hoping it didn't go in," UK wing Alex Poythress said of VanVleet's shot. "I've seen crazy things happen in the NCAA Tournament."
Willie Cauley-Stein, who closed on VanVleet when the Wichita State player came off a screen, feared a cold-blooded act about to happen.
"His face never changed throughout the whole game," Cauley-Stein said. "You cold just tell he was, like, locked into the game. His game is so smooth. I'm just, like, if this dude gets a clean look, it's going bottoms."
Kentucky, now 26-10 and headed for a Sweet 16 game against arch-rival Louisville, had lost six of seven previous games against ranked teams. The Cats always came agonizingly close, only to learn again and again what a difference winning and losing has on perception.
Players from each team cited the opposing fans in describing the emotional highs and lows associated with VanVleet's miss.
"You saw their fans and they're crying," Cauley-Stein said. "You want to be in that position."
Ron Baker, who scored 20 points for Wichita State, said the Shockers executed their final play "to perfection." But the shot missed.
"It would have been great if it went in," he said. "Everybody would have celebrated. It would have been remembered forever."
But VanVleet missed, ending a 1-for-6 shooting game (0-for-4 from three-point range).
"I heard a lot of Kentucky fans cheering," Baker said. "It kind of burnt my heart a little bit."
Kentucky players sensed few truly believed they could beat Wichita State, the Midwest Region's No. 1 seed and the first Division I team to build a 35-0 record.
"We knew we had the talent to win," Jarrod Polson said. "We felt we matched up well with them.
"We didn't see it as an underdog against a giant. We thought we were pretty even talent-wise."
The Cats needed a rally to beat Wichita State, which rode star forward Cleanthony Early's 31 points to the brink of victory. A Cleanthony three-pointer, part of his 21-point second half, put the Cats down 69-65 with barely four minutes left.
But Andrew Harrison, whose status seemed in doubt when he injured his right elbow late in Friday night's victory over Kansas State, made three free throws in the final minute to help clinch the victory. He led UK with 20 points. His free throw with 7.2 seconds left set the stage for the game's final shot.
For much of the game, Kentucky's familiar reliance on free throws seemed unavailable. UK, which coming into the game ranked second nationally in free-throw attempts (29.7 per), took only four in the first 28 minutes.
"They had one of the best defenses we played against all season," Polson said. "... They were always right there. They had each other's back."
Even on a good-shooting day from three-point range (8-for-18), Kentucky kept driving. It paid off with 14-for-18 accuracy in the final 11:38.
"Those new rules came into effect," Baker said in reference to tighter officiating to reduce contact and increase scoring. "They were lowering their heads."
After Early hit a jumper to put Wichita State ahead 71-70 with 2:16 left, James Young hit a three-pointer to give Kentucky a tenuous lead to protect in the final 90 seconds.
The opening 20 minutes suggested Wichita State was simply too good for Kentucky. Nothing better typified the Shockers' superiority than the first half's penultimate play.
VanVleet stripped the ball from Aaron Harrison as the UK freshman looked away to judge offensive possibilities. VanVleet then bounced a pass diagonally downcourt that hit Early in stride for a fast-break dunk.
Young steadied Kentucky by hitting a three-pointer with 10 seconds left to set UK's 37-31 halftime deficit.
Kentucky went into the second half having lost eight of 12 games it trailed at halftime.
Julius Randle, dubbed "the one-half wonder" by mentor Jeff Webster, lived up to the billing. His putback dunk brought UK within 40-33 inside the first minute of the second half and signaled his intentions to loom large. Eleven of his 13 points, eight of his 10 rebounds and two of his career-high six assists came after halftime.
"We did all we could," Baker said of the Shockers, but he could have meant the Cats, too. "When you step on the court and give it your all, that's all you can do."