ATLANTA — All week, as Kevin Ware deadpanned on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and fielded telephone calls from first lady Michelle Obama, the Louisville men’s basketball team quietly prepared for its second straight Final Four appearance. His leg shattered in a gruesome injury suffered in last Sunday’s Midwest Region final, Ware would be merely a spectator Saturday against Wichita State. But the inspiration Ware provided as he stared up at the ceiling at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis still lingered: “Just go win the game.”
For nearly 35 minutes Saturday, the ninth-seeded Shockers did everything they could to prevent that against the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed. But behind a career performance from junior forward Luke Hancock (20 points) and a characteristically rock-solid finish, Louisville squeaked past Wichita State, 72-68, denying the Shockers their opportunity at history and earning a spot in Monday’s national title game.
Louisville, a team that recovered from a double-digit deficit against Syracuse in the Big East title game, began to slowly batten the hatches after falling behind by 12 points with 13 minutes 39 seconds left. Reduced to running corner kick-outs for walk-on guard Tim Henderson, Ware’s replacement in the rotation, and high pick-and-rolls for Hancock, in his first season with the Cardinals since transferring from George Mason, they cut that deficit down to three with their typical frenzied defensive presence.
“Yeah, first you get used to it, and then they increase the intensity of their pressure,” Wichita State’s Ron Baker said. “It kind of hits you in waves. Towards the end of the game, it kind of took over.”
Leaks sprung for the Shockers. After going more than 26 minutes without a turnover, their giveaway number doubled from four to eight in a matter of moments. Down 62-60 with 2 minutes 16 seconds left, Wichita State committed a shot clock violation that paved the way for another Hancock three-pointer, his third of the evening and most clutch since draining the game-winner for George Mason against Villanova in the 2011 NCAA tournament. Hancock also made a free throw and then forced a jump ball off the ensuing miss, helping secure the win with 8.8 seconds left.
“It was awesome,” forward Stephan Van Treese said. Hancock has “been doing it all year. He’s our leader. He showed that he’s one of the big-time playmakers on this team.”
Last April, Hancock suffered an injury that rivaled Ware’s in terms of pain, tearing his labrum during a pickup game. The surgeon called it the worst shoulder injury he’d ever seen, and Hancock required 30 minutes of warmups just to lift his arm above his neckline.
“I said [to team trainer Fred Hina], ‘Is he going to play this year?’ ” Coach Rick Pitino remembered. “He said: ‘No one but Luke would play. Toughest kid I’ve ever seen since I’ve been a trainer.’ He’s a remarkable young man.”
The Shockers had spent their NCAA tournament dashing hopes behind the “play angry” style of Coach Gregg Marshall. They bristled at the Cinderella label because, as Marshall said, that particular princess only slipped on a single glass shoe. And from the pack-line defense that forced long two-point shots and brassy drives straight into the heart of Louisville’s, to the several precious seconds of clock they burned after made Cardinals baskets, the Shockers seemed to have everything figured out, taking a 26-25 lead into halftime.
But Louisville guard Russ Smith was his usual enigmatic self, missing four straight free throws to open the game but canning three of Louisville’s four deep balls by halftime. For even in Smith’s most baffling of moments, things usually work out. He finished with 20 points on 6-of-17 shooting, compensating for guard Peyton Siva’s laborious 1-of-9 performance. Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early had a team-high 24 points.
After Ware’s absence thinned Pitino’s back-court rotation, Hancock and Henderson became the unlikely stars. Ware still made his presence felt. Early in the second half, frustrated with his team’s lack of defensive intensity, the sophomore decided to join the Cardinals during an officials’ timeout. He picked up the crutches, swung his cast-stiffened leg off the table and hopped onto the court.
“I thought he was about to sub in for me, I’m so used to it,” Siva said. “He’s part of this team. We know how much it would mean for him to be out there. He just tried to give us whatever we needed, the extra motivation, the extra boost to get over the hump. That’s what he did.”
louisville 72, wichita state 68