ATLANTA – The scenario was always the same when Tim Henderson was a kid.
Dribbling around outside, he'd picture the shot clock ticking down to three, two and then one. Just before the imaginary buzzer sounded, he'd put up a shot to win the game for Louisville.
"I just pretended I was out there and shooting it for the team," he said Sunday.
Reality is even better than he imagined.
A lifelong Cardinals fan who walked onto the team rather than accept an offer from a smaller school, Henderson is a big reason top-seeded Louisville will play for the national title Monday night. With the Cardinals trailing by 12 in the second half against Wichita State, he hit back-to-back 3s to spark a 30-13 run.
As the final buzzer sounded on Louisville's 72-68 victory, Henderson exchanged a flying shoulder bump with Luke Hancock at midcourt while his parents, siblings and some high school buddies celebrated in the stands.
"I'm getting a lot of support from family, friends," Henderson said. "People who went to elementary school with me are Facebooking me, saying, 'Good job.' I'm getting text messages from numbers I don't even know saying, 'Good job, keep it up.'
"It feels great, but it's not over yet. One more."
Henderson knew his role was going to increase after Kevin Ware broke his lower right leg during the Midwest Regional final. Ware had been the main backup for Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, who play so hard and so fast they might combust if they had to play the entire game. Someone was going to have to make up those 16-plus minutes Ware had been averaging, and Henderson, who has played in 26 games this year, was the best option.
Though some questioned whether Henderson would be able to handle the increased playing time on such a big stage, his teammates weren't worried. This, after all, was the guy who had to guard Siva and Smith each day in practice.
"He can come in and spell anybody," Siva said earlier in the week. "If you guard Russ Smith the whole year, you can pretty much guard anybody."
That was on defense, however. Ware also had been chipping in almost 6 points a game in the NCAA tournament, while Henderson had a six-point game exactly once in his career.
But as the deficit grew and the clock kept ticking, the Cardinals needed somebody to give them a spark.
"(Stephan Van Treese) goes, 'Somebody's got to step up or do something,'" Henderson recalled. "I told him, 'Yeah, I know,' but I never thought — well, I knew I could hit the two 3s. But the way it happened was just awesome."
Henderson had missed on his only other field goal attempt, a 3 at the end of the first half. But seconds after entering the game for the first time in the second half, Henderson put up another 3 and, this time, he drained it. After Wichita State's Ehimen Orukpe missed the front end of a one-and-one, Henderson swished another, and what had been a 12-point deficit was now down to 6.
Hancock, Siva and Smith took over from there, erasing the rest of Wichita State's lead and putting the Cardinals in control.
"It meant everything," Ware said after the game. "Tim's been working hard all year. He gets chewed out because he's guarding Peyton and Russ all practice. But when he gets his moment, he always does his thing. That was clutch."
And incredibly impressive, coach Rick Pitino said.
"I was shocked," Pitino said. "Not shocked that he made 'em, just that he had the gumption to take them, then take it again. That's pretty darn big on this stage. That shows incredible fortitude for a young man that hasn't played many minutes, to go in and do that. So I'm very proud of him."
Of course, this is what Henderson has always dreamed of.
Though Henderson grew up a few miles from campus, that doesn't guarantee allegiance to the Cardinals. Kentucky counts most of the state as its fan base, Louisville included. But his parents were both athletes at Louisville — his dad swam and his mom played tennis — and the whole family are diehard Cardinals supporters. Except for his grandfather, who roots for Kentucky.
"I don't know how that happened," Henderson said.
He caught the eye of some smaller Division I schools when he was a junior in high school. But their interest dried up after he got hurt his senior year, and he decided to try walking on at Louisville.
"I've been a fan my whole life, and it was one of the goals I had," he said. "I just wanted to play for them."
Now he and the Cardinals are one win away from the national title.
"It's incredible, just an amazing feeling," Henderson said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I'll be talking about this forever, telling my kids, my grandkids about this."