ATLANTA (AP) — Russ Smith looked at the scoreboard, then at the clock, then over at the bench.
Louisville needed a run, but he had no idea where it was going to come from. The starters were struggling, the fouls were piling up and the only lift injured Kevin Ware could give the top-seeded Cardinals was an emotional one.
“It was like, ‘Man,’” Smith said. “I was actually waiting for our run. And it happened. Luke exploded. That was actually what I was waiting for. Then Chane exploded. Then Peyton made a big layup. Then Tim Henderson. It just kept going and going.”
And Louisville rode it all the way to the title game.
Luke Hancock scored 20 points off the bench, Henderson sparked a second-half rally with a pair of monster 3s and Louisville reminded everyone it can grind it out, too, advancing to the NCAA title game Saturday night after escaping with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State.
Louisville will play Michigan, which beat Syracuse 61-56 in the other semifinal, for the national championship Monday night. The Cardinals (34-5) have had this game in their sights since losing to Kentucky in last year’s Final Four, and they got added motivation after Ware’s tibia snapped during last weekend’s Midwest Regional final, the bone poking through the skin.
Ware was on his feet when the final buzzer sounded, grinning and throwing his arms into the air.
“We’ve got to bring our best game,” Ware said. “It’s the last game of the season. If we lose, everything we’ve worked for just goes down the drain. That’s the last thing we want right now.”
Especially after such a close call against 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 on Louisville with 13:35 to play. It was the largest deficit all tournament for the Cardinals, who seemed lost after the emotional week following Ware’s gruesome injury.
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. Even coach Rick Pitino’s horse, Goldencents, had to rally to win the Santa Anita Derby, and a spot in the Kentucky Derby, on Saturday.
This rally trumped them all.
“We just played super hard,” said Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points. “Nobody wanted to go home.”
Henderson, the walk-on who was forced into increased playing time because of Ware’s injury, made those back-to-back 3s to spark a 21-8 run. While Hancock and Behanan were knocking down shots, Smith and Peyton Siva were turning up the heat on the Shockers, forcing them into seven turnovers in the final seven minutes after they’d gone more than 26 minutes without one.
The first came when Siva darted in to strip the ball away from Carl Hall. Siva 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,” said Wichita State’s Malcolm Armstead, who had just 2 points on 1-of-10 shooting. “I can’t give you an explanation — it just happened.”
Cleanthony Early would give the Shockers one more lead, converting a three-point play. But Siva scored and then Smith stole the ball and took it in for an easy 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 their free throws to seal the victory.
As the final buzzer sounded, Chane 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,” said Early, who led the Shockers with 24 points. “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 they steamrolled their way through their first four games, winning by an average of almost 22 points. They limited opponents to 59 points and 42 percent shooting while 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. 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.
The Cardinals have modified their warm-up T-shirts in Ware’s honor — they now read “Ri5e to the Occasion,” with Ware’s No. 5 on the back. He had a seat at the end of the bench, his right leg propped up on towels, and every one of the starters went to shake his hand after being introduced.
But whether it was the roller-coaster of the last week, the expectations or just Wichita State, the Cardinals seemed out of sorts much of the night. Wayne Blackshear and Gorgui Dieng went scoreless, and Siva was just 1-of-9.
“There’s a reason our starters played poorly, because Wichita State is that good,” Pitino said
Wichita State may not have the names or pedigree of a Louisville, Syracuse or Michigan. But what the Shockers lacked in star power they more than made up for in hustle and heart. This, after all, was a team with one player (Carl Hall) who salvaged his career after working in a light bulb factory and two more (Armstead and Ron Baker) who paid their own ways in their first years.
The Shockers barely seemed to notice that vaunted Louisville press until the final minutes of the game. They didn’t rush shots, working it around until they got a look they liked — Louisville was called for more than one foul late in the shot clock, including one on Smith with only a second left — and they were relentless on the backboards.
And that “play angry” defense? Now the Cardinals have an idea of how their opponents have felt. Wichita State bottled Louisville up inside, never letting Gorgui Dieng be a factor, and the Cardinals were continually forced to put up awkward and bad shots from outside.
“We were kind of waiting to make our run,” Hancock said. “Obviously you’re a little concerned when you’re down by 12 in the second half. We just had to turn up our intensity, maybe gamble a little more.”
Louisville was struggling so badly that Ware actually got out of his seat at one point, hobbling over to the Louisville huddle.
“He just wanted to tell us that we needed to pick it up,” Siva said. “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.”
The Shockers have had trouble hanging onto leads, and this game was no different. After Henderson’s 3s, the Cardinals were off and running, all the way to the last game of the season.
“Coach Pitino kept telling us to go out there and have fun and keep playing and we were going to win. Stop hanging our heads,” Siva said.
“That’s what we did.”