Published September 12, 2015
Louisville's ugliest win was its biggest one yet.
Luke Hancock came off the bench to score 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 over Wichita State.
"I just kept telling the guys ... `We're going to make a run. It's about defense,"' coach Rick Pitino said. "Give them their credit, but the bench won the game for us tonight."
And now the Cardinals (34-5) will try and win it all for their emotional leader on the bench, injured Kevin Ware. As the final buzzer sounded, Ware stood up, grinning as he thrust his arms above his head.
Louisville will play the winner of Syracuse-Michigan for the national title Monday night. It is the Cardinals' first trip to the title game since they won it all in 1986.
Russ Smith led the Cardinals with 21 points, and Chane Behanan added 10.
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 it had a 12-point lead on the Cardinals 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.
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.
"They were unbelievable the entire team with their defensive intensity," Hancock said. "We had to just come out and execute on offense, especially in the second half we had to pick it."
Henderson, the walk-on 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 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," Wichita State's Malcolm Armstead said. "I can't give you an explanation -- it just happened."
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.
"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 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, which already had some unfinished business after losing to Kentucky in last year's Final Four. Ware's tibia snapped and broke through the skin during last weekend's Midwest Regional final. Yet he's here in Atlanta, his hometown, and was sitting on a chair at the end of the Louisville bench, his right leg propped up on towels.
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 -- and every one of the starters went to shake his hand after being introduced.
But whether it was the emotional roller-coaster of the last week, the expectations or just Wichita State, the Cardinals seemed out of sorts much of the night.
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 (Ron Baker and Malcolm Armstead) 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 like -- 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.
Tekele Cotton sparked an 11-2 run with a jumper, and his layup to finish it off gave Wichita State a 43-32 lead with 14:19 to play. Smith interrupted the spurt with a 3, only to have Hancock foul Early at the other end. Early made the first free throw and missed the second, but Cotton scooped up the rebound and dished it out to Early, who drilled a 3 to put Wichita State up 47-35.
But the Shockers have had trouble hanging onto leads, and this game was no different. Henderson buried back-to-back 3s, and the Cardinals were off and running, all the way to the last game of the season.