WICHITA, Kan. The best player you've never heard of on the best team you've never seen went and locked himself in a glass case of emotion. Here stood Carl Hall, the victorious. Here stood Carl Hall, the inconsolable.
"I'm excited we won, man," Hall, Wichita State's chiseled power forward, offered softly after his Shockers knocked off No. 12 Creighton, 67-64, to move into a tie with the Bluejays atop the Missouri Valley Conference. "But I'm still down on myself about those free throws at the end, man."
With that, the giant in the grey hoodie dropped his head, crestfallen. Seeing this, teammate Demetric Williams passed by and slapped the big lug on the back.
"Naw, it's over with, man," Williams chuckled, never breaking stride, shouting back at Hall as he passed. "I missed two of them. I was oh-fer-2."
Hall smiled at that, for a second. Then he dropped his head again.
"Yeah," Hall whispered. "I'm still thinking about the five free throws I missed."
In the final two minutes of a 1-point game, Hall who'd nailed 72.2 percent of his free-throw attempts before Saturday afternoon went to the stripe six times.
He made one.
The Shockers won anyway.
Wichita State shot 38 percent from the floor, 17.4 percent from beyond the arc and misfired on 10 of 19 attempts from the line.
The Shockers won anyway.
Doug McDermott, Creighton's all-world forward, scored 25 points, collected six rebounds, drained four of five 3-point attempts. At one point in the second half, he sank a turnaround, fade-away jumper along the baseline, the way Michael Jordan used to do. After the game, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall pretty much likened the kid to Larry Bird.
The Shockers won anyway.
"It's funny, because it actually makes a lot of sense," said forward Cleanthony Early, whose 13 points helped the Shockers improve to 17-2, 6-1 in league play. "And we know that, Dang, that wasn't even pretty.' We know that we can play way better basketball. The goal is to just get to that point."
And yet rarely has a game so ugly the two schools combined to shoot 19-of-36 from the charity stripe and turned it over, collectively, 21 times seemed so, well, riveting. McDermott was pure silk, Hall was pure granite, and the sellout crowd at Koch Arena, aka "The Roundhouse," sounded like a jet engine going off next to your skull.
"This what people come to college basketball for, and we're just proud to be a part of it," Shockers athletic director Eric Sexton said. "Creighton is a great opponent, a great rival, a great part of our MVC family. That's what makes college basketball great."
It's the Valley's version of Duke versus North Carolina, two non-football heavyweights one private, one public. Over the last 11 seasons, the Jays or Shockers have finished among the top two in the league standings six times apiece. Of the last 16 meetings between the pair, 10 have been decided by seven points or fewer.
Creighton fans like to label Wichita State's faithful as a bunch of frothing hillbillies. Shocker fans like label Creighton's faithful as a collection of cocky, entitled jerkwads. Basically, they love to hate one another, which is why it'd be a shame to think this series might soon be over, what with the talk of Creighton bolting the Valley for the parochial-school super-league that's expected to rise from the ashes of the Big East.
"It's as good as it gets for a college basketball atmosphere," McDermott said of The Roundhouse. "Wichita fans always bring it, every night. I give them respect."
Meanwhile, they gave him hell. Over the final, raucous 11:20, there were four ties, and the Shockers never led by more than four at any point down the stretch. Creighton had not one, but two, chances to force overtime with a 3-pointer in the last eight seconds; Dead-eye Ethan Wragge, a 45.9 percent shooter from beyond the arc heading into the weekend, wound up missing twice including a heave from the top of the arc as the final buzzer sounded.
"We tried to (foul)," allowed Marshall, who improved to 6-6 against the Jays. "It was unsuccessful. There's a fine line between fouling and trying to foul so hard they call an intentional foul. So far, we're 0-for-2 with that; I'm not a very good teacher of that. But we won both games so I'll take the results."
He'll take them gladly, too. Creighton (17-2, 6-1) wanted this game, but Wichita needed it. A loss to the Jays would've put Marshall two games back in the title chase with a return trip to Omaha looming in the regular-season finale for both schools on March 2.
"We didn't allow them to separate," Marshall said. "That's the thing."
To their credit, they also didn't allow someone besides McDermott to get into much of groove, center Gregory Echenqiue (9 points, 13 boards, 5 blocks) notwithstanding. The non-McDermotts on the Jays' roster were a combined 13-for-36 from the floor and 4-for-15 on treys. Creighton had two players score in double figures. The Shockers had four.
The Jays feature McDermott and a cast of thousands; Wichita just features a cast of thousands. Of which Hall, a 6-foot-8 junior-college transfer from Georgia, is the heart and soul. The big man was playing in just his second game after missing the previous seven with a broken right thumb.
"For two-and-a-half, three weeks, I couldn't do anything it kind of threw me off," said Hall, who collected 17 points and 13 rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench. "It's kind of hard, coming back and jumping into a Division 1 game, being rushed in, not shooting the ball for four or five weeks.
"I was rusty (earlier in the week against Illinois State); you could tell I wasn't used to game speed. (Saturday), man, was totally different it felt a lot better for me, running up and down the court. I could get my legs back."
He'll get his foul shot back, too. Eventually.
"Without him, we don't win that game that type of way," guard Malcolm Armstead said of Hall. "Without him, we're not in this situation."
And yet, here they are. You know the old chestnut about how it's better to be lucky than good? The Shockers are both. Accent on the latter.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com