The Roundhouse | 7/20/2023 9:34:00 AM
Hear Final Four memories from Ron Baker and Zach Bush. And more are the words of Shockers Mike Kennedy and former Wichita Eagle reporter Bob Lutz on the 2013 Final Four.
By Paul Suelentrop
The wait, the twist, the miles, and the worry – all of that is right for Ehimen Orukpe.
Orukpe, Wichita State’s center for the 2013 Final Four season, lives in Phoenix and will not be able to attend at 10 this week.Th reminder to meet again. There is a bit of bitterness in that because no member of the team paid more to get to Wichita than Orukpe.
“It was difficult,” he said earlier this week. “At one point I was defeated.”
His three seasons at Wichita State elevated him, both on the basketball court and academically. He returned the favor with his unselfish play, defensive skills, and dedication in the classroom.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” he said. “I took advantage of the many opportunities I was given. Wichita gave me a home. The people are really good. It’s a good place.”
Orukpe, a software analyst, earned a degree in mathematics with a minor in business and a 3.52 GPA. As a senior, he earned a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference Scholar-Athlete Team. The National Association of Basketball Coaches named him a member of the 2011-21 Honors Court for seniors with a grade point average of 3.20 or higher.
“Happiness,” former Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall told The Wichita Eagle in 2013. “Zero maintenance.”
As a 7-foot blocker, Orukpe started 30 games in 2012-13 and played his best basketball during a time when fellow big man Carl Hall was sidelined with a hand injury. Orukpe played for the 2011 NIT champions, the 2012 MVC champions and the NCAA Tournament at-large pick and the 2013 Final Four team.
Nothing came easy for Orukpe, who hails from Lagos, Nigeria.
He signed with the Shockers in May 2007 and spent a year waiting for a test release and working to get a visa. Marshall sent assistant coach Marty Gross to Nigeria and the athletic department worked with Kansas state officials to secure a visa.
He came to the United States in 2008. An excellent academic record did not interfere with NCAA eligibility, so he attended Three Rivers (Mo.) Community College for two years. He came to Wichita State in 2010 for his sophomore season.
He remembers that Gross accompanied him to the embassy to try to get a visa when it was available. He remembers a call from Marshall that inspired him.
In a Shocker uniform, Orukpe provided form and a scoring barrier on the road. He blocked nine shots against Southern Illinois in 2013, tied for sixth most in Shocker history. His 56 blocks in 2012-13 were tied for fourth on the career list.
After playing in the reserve role his first two seasons, Orukpe broke into the starting lineup as a senior in 2012-13. The team started the season with a little hope after the departure of the main players. The Shockers went 11-1 in undefeated games. Injuries to Evan Wessel, Ron Baker and Carl Hall took their toll and they endured a three-game losing streak midway through the MVC season and lost two straight to end the regular season.
Orukpe, like some of his teammates, recalls a video session at the end of the season directed by assistant coach Chris Jans. These videos showed the Shockers at their best and reminded them of sportsmanship and the necessary confidence. Coaches have told them, even in times of trouble, that this team has the potential to produce a special season.
“It gave us chills,” Orukpe said. “(Jan) was very strong that season.”
Baker returned to the MVC Tournament and the Shockers clicked. They advanced to the championship game before losing to Creighton. They then defeated Pittsburgh, No. 1 Gonzaga, La Salle, and Ohio State to move to the Final Four.
“We know our sweet spot,” Orukpe said. “We knew – we had to play hard to win. We played as a unit. Unselfish.”
Weathers was impressive in the final six minutes of a 76-70 win over Gonzaga in Salt Lake City. The Shockers trailed 61-54 with 5:31 to play after Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos made a three-pointer.
Somewhere around that time, Orukpe remembers Marshall telling the Shockers that the time had come, and it was their choice to finish strong or fade away.
“Blemishes on my body,” said Orukpe. “We were ready to get back out there. It was all magic at the time.”
Freshman point guard Fred VanVleet hit a long three-pointer with a quick shot to give Wichita State a 70-65 lead with 1:28 to play. He held his shooting hand up as the ball entered the net and turned to face Marshall.
“You see him give up, like he feels he’s the only one on the court,” Orukpe said. “No one has ever seen him do this. Basketball is all about confidence. That’s where he excelled.”
Two more wins send the Shockers to Atlanta, the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1965. Police escort. Fans are flocking everywhere. Best hotels. National media are crowded locker rooms. The public event at the Georgia Dome before the Orukpe-style semifinal.
“All this time, it was in other places,” he said. “It didn’t feel real.”
Orukpe played three years including in Spain, Croatia, and Saudi Arabia before returning to Wichita. He moved to Arizona two years ago.
The final four reunion will bring together Shockers from Kansas, Illinois, Canada, Georgia, Nevada, New York, and other places. The man who traveled the distance will be gone, but his six-year journey remains part of the band’s legacy.
Paul Suelentrop writes about Wichita State sports at the university’s Strategic Communications. Story ideas? Contact him at email@example.com.