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Wichita State loses perfect season; Kentucky advances

WichitState guard Fred VanVleet (23) leaves floor after missing three-point attempt final seconds against Kentucky  during second half third-round

Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet (23) leaves the floor after missing a three-point attempt in the final seconds against Kentucky during the second half of a third-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, March 23, 2014, in St. Louis. Kentucky won 78-76. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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Updated: March 23, 2014 11:13PM

ST. LOUIS — It’s too late to apologize.

As Wichita State’s record grew to 35-0, nonbelievers railed against the Shockers’ strength of schedule (or lack thereof). The NCAA selection committee set them up for failure in a brutally tough Midwest Regional. But the Shockers never complained nor felt the need to explain themselves to anyone.

Meanwhile, as Kentucky failed to dominate in the manner of a preseason No. 1, critics of coach John Calipari and his super-frosh system made their minds up that this group of Wildcats newbies was unworthy of high praise — unlikable, even. Through that, UK kept working at getting better.

And now, again, it’s too late for either team to apologize because in light of the masterpiece they coauthored, an apology would be simply unbelievable.

No. 8 seed Kentucky, a 78-76 victor, earned the status of national- championship contender.

No. 1 seed Wichita State, the pride of the Missouri Valley Conference, better have won everybody’s respect.

If we’re all lucky, there will be another game this good sometime before the end of this tournament. If not this one, maybe next year. Games like this one are all too rare, for sure.

“I just thought it was a great college basketball game,” said Shockers coach Gregg Marshall. “Two high-level teams.

“I’m not ashamed to come out on the losing end. I’m just sad that these guys, I can’t coach them anymore this year.”

Who knows how many of Calipari’s five freshman starters he’ll get to coach beyond this tourney run? Julius Randle, a terror of a power forward who had 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists Sunday, is a lottery pick. Twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, who scored 20 and 19, respectively, have big-time options, as do slick wing man James Young and 7-footer Dakari Johnson. Sophomore 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein has things to figure out, too.

It’s a phenomenal collection of talent that so far has produced 26 victories and — hard to believe after how they played against the Shockers — 10 defeats.

“[Despite] what people said about this team,” said Calipari, “all we have done all year is continue to get better.”

Against the Shockers, they did more than that. UK fought back from nine points down in each half. The Wildcats withstood an all-time kind of night for Wichita senior Cleanthony Early, who scored 31 and seemed destined to shoot down Big Blue. In a game with 14 lead changes — seven in the second half — Kentucky played brilliantly and clearly ascended to a new level.

“Even in this tournament,” Andrew Harrison said, “we’re still getting better.”

And now, defending national champ Louisville awaits in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. The Wildcats and Cardinals are rather familiar with each other, in case you didn’t realize it. It could be a real classic.

Hopefully it’s half as good as this one was.

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