ATLANTA – The deficit was getting bigger, the clock becoming an enemy and Louisville’s options were dwindling.
“I just kept telling the guys ‘We’re going to make a run. It’s about defense,”‘ Coach Rick Pitino said. “The tempo is not ours. Give them their credit but the bench won the game for us tonight. Unbelievable display.”
Impressive comeback, too.
Reserve Luke Hancock scored 20 points, walk-on Tim Henderson sparked a second-half rally with a pair of monster 3s and Louisville advanced to the NCAA title game Saturday night, escaping with a 72-68 victory against Wichita State.
Now the Cardinals (34-5) will try and win it all for their emotional leader on the bench, the injured Kevin Ware. As the final buzzer sounded, Ware stood, grinning as he thrust his arms above his head.
Louisville will play Michigan for the national title Monday night. It is the Cardinals’ first trip to the title game since they won it all in 1986.
“We just played super hard,” said Russ Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points. “Nobody wanted to go home.”
Cleanthony Early had 24 for the ninth-seeded Shockers (30-9), who nearly pulled off their biggest upset of all.
Wichita State had knocked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga and Ohio State on its way to its first Final Four since 1965, and the Shockers had a 12-point lead with 13:35 to play. It was the largest deficit all tournament for the Cardinals, who seemed out of sorts after an emotional week following Ware’s gruesome injury; he snapped his tibia and the bone broke through the skin during last weekend’s Midwest Regional final.
But Louisville had come back to win five games after trailing by nine points or more already this year, including rallying from a 16-point deficit in the title game at the Big East tournament.
This one trumped them all.
“It’s tough for Wichita State to lose this game tonight because they played great. We had to dig in,” Pitino said. “Four of our starters had their worst start of the season. We had to win the game with our second unit.”
Henderson, who was forced into increased playing time because of Ware’s injury, made back-to-back 3s to spark a 21-8 run. While Hancock and Chane Behanan were knocking down shots, Smith and Peyton Siva were turning up the heat on the Shockers.
After going more than 26 minutes without a turnover, Siva darted in to strip the ball away from Carl Hall. He fed Hancock, who drilled a 3 that gave Louisville a 56-55 lead, its first since the end of the first half.
“Down the stretch we were just loose with the ball, we just didn’t take care of it, pretty much,” Malcolm Armstead of Wichita State said. “I can’t give an explanation, it just happened.”
Early gave the Shockers one more lead, converting a three-point play. But Siva scored, then Smith stole the ball and took it in for a layup that gave Louisville a 60-58 lead with 4:47 left. Louisville fans erupted and even Ware was on his feet, throwing up his arms and clapping. The Cardinals extended the lead to 65-60 on a tip-in of a Smith miss and another 3 by Hancock.
Wichita State had one last chance, pulling within 68-66 on Early’s tip-in with 22 seconds left. But the Shockers were forced to foul, and Smith and Hancock made free throws.
As the final buzzer sounded, Behanan tossed the ball high into the air, and Henderson and Hancock did a flying shoulder bump at midcourt.
“It’s just a mix of emotions, of feelings. It hurts to have to lose and be the end of the season,” Early said. “But these guys fought to the end, and we had a great season and keep our heads high and know the grind doesn’t stop.”
The Cardinals were the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament and steamrolled through their first four games, winning by an average of almost 22 points. They limited foes to 59 points and 42 percent shooting, harassing them into almost 18 turnovers a game, setting an NCAA tourney record with 20 steals against North Carolina A&T.
The presence of Ware was supposed to provide even more motivation for Louisville, which already had some unfinished business after losing to Kentucky in last year’s Final Four.
He urged his teammates to “just go win the game” before being wheeled off the court on a stretcher last weekend. Three days later he joined the Cardinals as they made the trip to the Final Four in Atlanta, Ware’s hometown.