INDIANAPOLIS — With tears in their eyes and Kevin Ware in their hearts, there was no way Louisville was losing this game.
Russ Smith scored 23, Gorgui Dieng had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, and top-seeded Louisville put aside the shock from Ware’s gruesome leg injury to earn a second straight trip to the Final Four with an 85-63 victory over Duke on Sunday afternoon.
As the final seconds ticked down, Chane Behanan put Ware’s jersey on and stood at the end of the Louisville bench, screaming. Cardinals fans chanted “Kevin Ware! Kevin Ware!”
“We won this for him,” coach Rick Pitino said. “We were all choked up with emotion for him. We’ll get him back to normal. We’ve got great doctors, great trainers.”
Ware played his high-school ball in Georgia and the Final Four is in Atlanta, just adding to the emotion for the victorious Cardinals.
“We talked about it every timeout, ‘Get Kevin home,'” Pitino said.
This was the first time Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski had met in the regional finals since that 1992 classic that ended with Christian Laettner’s improbable buzzer-beater, a game now considered one of the best in NCAA tournament history.
This game will be remembered, too, but for a very different — and much more somber — reason.
With 6:33 left in the first half, Ware, who has played a key role in Louisville’s 14-game winning streak, jumped to try and block Tyler Thornton’s 3-point shot. When he landed, his right leg snapped midway between his ankle and knee, the bone skewing almost at a right angle. Ware dropped to the floor right in front of the Louisville bench and, almost in unison, his teammates turned away in horror. Thornton grimaced, putting his hand to his mouth as he turned around.
Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear fell to the floor and Behanan looked as if he was going to be sick on the court, kneeling on his hands and feet. Luke Hancock patted Ware’s chest as doctors worked on the sophomore and Smith walked away, pulling his jersey over his eyes. The arena was silent, and several fans wept and bowed their heads.
Pitino had tears in his eyes as he tried to console his players. Dieng draped an arm around the shoulders of Smith, who repeatedly wiped at his eyes and shook his head. The Cardinals (33-5) gathered at halfcourt to try and regroup before Pitino called them over to the sideline, saying Ware wanted to talk to them before he left.
“Basically, the bone popped out of the skin. It broke in two spots,” Pitino said. “Remember the bone is six inches out of his leg, and all he’s yelling is ‘Win the game, win the game.’ I’ve never seen anything like that.”
News of the injury dominated social media. Joe Theismann whose NFL career ended with a horrific broken leg, said on Twitter, “Watching Duke/ Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware.”
Fans chanted “Kevin! Kevin” as Ware was loaded onto the stretcher, and Pitino wiped away tears again as Ware was wheeled off the court.
“That was a tough one,” Pitino said.
Play resumed about 10 minutes later, but it was clear the Cardinals’ minds were elsewhere. They missed four of their next five shots along with two free throws, and were uncharacteristically sloppy. But they regrouped after a timeout, with Smith’s finger roll sparking a 12-6 run to finish the half that gave them a 35-32 lead.
Smith picked up where he left off at the start of the second half, making all three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt to give Louisville a 38-32 lead, its largest of the game to that point.
But just as he did against Michigan State, Duke star Seth Curry got hot after halftime, making two 3s in the first three minutes. Mason Plumlee dunked to tie the game at 42.
That, however, was all Louisville needed.
Clawing for every rebound, diving on the floor for loose balls and cranking the intensity up even higher on their ferocious defense, the Cardinals were not going to lose. And everyone, Duke included, knew it.
Smith, the most outstanding player of the Midwest Region, made a layup. Peyton Siva had a nice jumper at the top of the key, and then followed with a layup. Just like that, the Cardinals were off on a 20-4 run that sealed the victory.
Siva had 16 points and Luke Hancock added 10 for the Cardinals, who will play Wichita State in the national semifinals next Saturday. The ninth-seeded Shockers (30-8) added to their streak of upsets with a 70-66 victory over Ohio State on Saturday night.
Plumlee finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Curry added 12, all in the second half.
The Blue Devils (30-6) needed Curry to come up big as he did against Michigan State if they were going to have any chance against the Blue Devils. But Curry didn’t take a shot until almost nine minutes into the game, and missed each of his three shots in the first half.
This was only the second time the Blue Devils have reached the regional finals and failed to make it to the Final Four. The only other time? In 1998, when the Blue Devils lost to eventual national champion Kentucky.
The loss prevented Krzyzewski — for now — from tying John Wooden’s record of 12 Final Four appearances.