ST. LOUIS >> It took a program stocked with NBA prospects to finally end Wichita State’s perfect run.
Andrew Harrison scored 20 points, twin brother Aaron had 19 and Kentucky survived a potential winning 3-pointer at the buzzer by Fred VanVleet to knock off the undefeated Shockers with a 78-76 victory Sunday in the NCAA tournament.
Julius Randle added 13 points and 10 rebounds, and James Young also had 13 points for the No. 8 seed Wildcats (26-10), who made a series of clutch free throws in the closing minutes to advance to the Sweet 16 in arguably the most captivating game of a thrilling first weekend.
Now, Big Blue Nation gets to jump right into another high-profile matchup: Louisville awaits in the Sweet 16 on Friday in Indianapolis. The Wildcats beat their bitter in-state rival in December.
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.
Kentucky took the lead for good at 73-71 when 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-pointer and Randle made two more foul shots.
Early’s two free throws with 9.8 seconds left got the Shockers within 77-76, and they still had a chance when Andrew Harrison missed the second of two free throws and Early got the rebound.
VanVleet raced up court and called timeout with 3.2 seconds left.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall drew up a play that had Tekele Cotton inbounding the ball to VanVleet, who took a shot from the top of the key. But the shot was wide the entire way, and it clanked off the rim as the buzzer sounded and Kentucky began to celebrate.
The team full of blue-chip prospects had finally ended the blue-collared team’s dream.
The Midwest Regional showdown came after an entertaining undercard matchup that saw Stanford knock off Kansas, and it lived up to every expectation.
Kentucky was successful early using its superior size, not only in the paint but also on the perimeter, where the 6-foot-6 Harrison twins dwarfed the 5-11 VanVleet. But after the Wildcats took a 19-15 lead midway through the half, Wichita State ramped up its trademark defense, forcing a series of turnovers and getting right back in the game.
VanVleet was the catalyst. On one sequence late in the half, he stripped Aaron Harrison and hit Early in transition, and he was fouled slamming over 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein. Early converted the free throw as the shockers built a 37-31 lead at the half.
Early hit a 3-pointer right out of the locker room, too, to match the Shockers’ biggest lead at 40-31. But VanVleet picked up his third foul moments later, and Kentucky took advantage of the Shockers missing their floor general by gradually pulling ahead.
The game remained a back-and-forth prizefight the rest of the way, neither team leading by more than five, each answering the other with clutch 3-pointers and pressure-filled free throws.
It only made sense that the game would come down to the final possession.