The Shockers’ guard — and former Whitefield Academy standout — held Tray Woodall to two points while coming up with five steals and a key 3-point basket in helping ninth-seeded Wichita State to a 73-55 win over eighth-seeded Pitt on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
At the news conference after the game, Woodall broke down and had to be comforted by Dante Taylor, who wrapped an arm around his teammate’s shoulder.
“It’s a bitter taste in my mouth to end my career with one of the worst games I’ve ever played,” said Woodall, who came into the game averaging 11.8 points. “I’m sorry. I let my team down.”
Cotton, a 6-2 sophomore, hit his 3-pointer to start a 12-4 run and added a fast-break dunk to put the Shockers ahead. Woodall was just 1-of-12 from the field, and 0-of-5 from 3-point range.
The game was a physical one, with players receiving an occasional elbow in the mouth or to the head.
Malcolm Armstead led Wichita State (27-8) with 22 points, Cleanthony Early added 21 and Carl Hall had 11. Freshman Steven Adams led Pitt (24-9) with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
The Shockers will face No. 1 Gonzaga next.
Wichita State forced 15 turnovers and held the Panthers to 35 percent shooting, including 1 of 17 from 3-point range.
“Our guys took the fight to them, by getting a body on them, being quicker to the ball,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “The steals we had on them were big, big baskets and gave us a lead, and a comfortable lead as the game went on.”
Cotton deserved a lot of the credit. Armstead compared his teammate to a free safety, full of heart and desire. Marshall corrected him.
“I think he’s more of a strong safety,” Marshall said of Cotton, who finished with six points, three rebounds, two assists an no turnovers. “He’s a terrific athlete, tough as nails.”
Wichita State led 26-21 at the half.
Early’s layup and two free throws by Armstead pushed Wichita State’s lead to 30-21 early in the second half. Durand Johnson’s 3-pointer cut it to 30-26, and the Panthers were within 35-31 following a three-point play by James Robinson. Cotton answered with a 3-pointer to bump the Shockers’ lead to 38-31.
Hall’s three-point play on a Cotton assist with under 12 minutes left gave the Shockers a 10-point lead, 41-31. Pitt pulled within six after four free throws but the Shockers went on a 6-0 run, fueled by a pair of Cotton steals, a dunk by him and two more free throws by Early for a 47-35 advantage with 10:13 left.
The Panthers wouldn’t get any closer than eight after that, as the Shockers scored 21 points off turnovers and took advantage at the free throw line, making 33 of 41 attempts.
“Our guys took the fight to them, by getting a body on them, being quicker to the ball,” Marshall said. “The steals we had on them were big, big baskets and gave us a lead, and a comfortable lead as the game went on.”
It was another early exit for the Panthers, who failed to make the field last year, and were knocked out by Butler in their second game in 2011.
The teams were supposed to be mirror images of each other, and in many ways they were — going hard at rebounds, concentrating on defense and having difficulty finding the basket.
With 12 minutes elapsed, Wichita State was shooting just 25 percent and the Panthers 29 percent.
The ugly first half saw the teams combine for as many turnovers (15) as field goals.
The game was expected to be a defensive struggle, with Pitt allowing just 55.4 points and the Shockers known for dominating the glass with 38 rebounds a game.
Pitt’s Lamar Patterson was called for a flagrant foul late in the first half after Ron Baker took an elbow to his mouth.
Baker made one of the two free throws then Armstead scored after his own miss on the next possession to give the Shockers a five-point lead at the half.