INDIANAPOLIS – Writhing on the ground, his leg splintered, Kevin Ware had only one thing to say to his heartsick Louisville teammates.
"Just go win the game."
The Cardinals did, exploding for a 13-2 run early in the second half that sealed their 85-63 victory over Duke. Now they're headed for Atlanta with their eyes on the national title and Ware's words echoing in their heads.
Top-seeded Louisville — the only No. 1 left — will play Wichita State in the national semifinals next Saturday. In Ware's hometown, no less.
"We want to do this for him," Peyton Siva said. "We know how much it means to him."
Louisville (33-5) was devastated by Ware's injury, which occurred with 6:33 still left in the first half. The sophomore had jumped to try and block Tyler Thornton's 3-point shot but, and as he landed, his right leg snapped midway between his ankle and knee, the bone skewing almost at a right angle. Ware dropped to the floor right in front of the Louisville bench and, almost in unison, his teammates turned away in horror. Thornton grimaced, putting his hand to his mouth as he turned around.
"He stumbled a bit for a second and fell, and his leg wasn't where it should be," Luke Hancock said.
Ware had surgery later Sunday night, and Pitino said he and his son Richard, who recruited Ware, and an equipment manager would spend the night in Indy, along with the team's doctors.
School officials said doctors reset the bone and inserted a rod into the tibia during the two-hour procedure.
Coach Rick Pitino went to help Ware up when he went down — and then saw the player's bone poking through the skin.
"I literally almost threw up," Pitino said, his voice catching. "Then I just wanted to get a towel to get it over that. But all the players came over and saw it."
Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear fell to the floor and Chane Behanan, Ware's closest friend on the team, looked as if he was going to be sick on the court, kneeling on his hands and feet. Hancock patted Ware's chest as doctors worked on the sophomore and Russ Smith walked away, pulling his jersey over his eyes. The arena was silent, and several fans wept and bowed their heads.
Pitino had tears in his eyes as he tried to console his players. Dieng draped an arm around the shoulders of Smith, who repeatedly wiped at his eyes and shook his head.
"It was really hard for me to pull myself together," Smith said. "I didn't ever think in a million years I would ever see something like that. And that it happened, especially, to a guy like Kevin Ware, I was completely devastated."
As the Cardinals (33-5) gathered at halfcourt to try and regroup before play resumed, Pitino called them over to the sideline, saying Ware wanted to talk to them before he left.
"He told us countless times: 'Just go win this game for me. Just go win this game. Don't worry about me, I'm fine. Just go win this game.' I don't know how he did it. I don't know how he got strength to do it, but he told us to go out there and win."
The injury was so gruesome CBS stopped showing replays of it. Many who saw it were reminded of the horrific broken leg that ended Joe Theismann's NFL career, and the former quarterback was among the many who took to Twitter to wish Ware well, saying, "Watching Duke/ Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware."
Pitino wiped away tears as Ware, whom Smith described as the Cardinals' "little brother" was wheeled off the court. Surgeons reset his leg and inserted a rod in his right tibia during a 2-hour operation at Methodist Hospital. Ware is expected to remain in Indianapolis until at least Tuesday, but the Cardinals hope he can join them in Atlanta, where he moved before he started high school.
"He was groggy, in good spirits," Pitino said when he returned to his hotel late Sunday night after visiting Ware. "He saw us win the trophy and was crying and said it was all worthwhile."
But when play resumed, it was clear the Cardinals' minds were elsewhere. They missed four of their next five shots along with two free throws, and were uncharacteristically sloppy.
"Honestly, we were in shock," Hancock said. "I don't think we did re-group for the rest of the half. I think we were still in such shock. I mean, you could imagine how a team would feel if one of your brothers had this happen to them."
When they went into the locker room, Pitino's message was simple.
"Don't lose the game for Kevin Ware," Smith said. "That's it, really."
The Cardinals had finished the first half on a 12-6 run, and Smith padded that by making all of his free throws when he was fouled on a 3-point attempt. But just as he did against Michigan State, Duke star Seth Curry got hot after halftime, making two 3s in the first three minutes. Mason Plumlee dunked, and the game was tied at 42.
That, however, was all Louisville needed. Clawing for every rebound, diving on the floor for loose balls and cranking the intensity up even higher on their ferocious defense, the Cardinals were not going to lose.
And everyone, Duke included, knew it.
"These guys really came to play," Siva said. "Everybody on the team just wanted to step up for him."
Smith converted a three-point play and Siva followed with a silky-smooth jumper from the top of the key. Just like that, Louisville was off.
Siva had six points during the run, which was only halted by a timeout. But Dieng kept it rolling with a jumper and a tip-in. After Plumlee made a pair of free throws, Hancock made a 3 and Lucas Oil Stadium shook from the thunderous cheers of the Louisville fans.
The Blue Devils were never close again.
Smith finished with 23 points and earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the Midwest Region. Siva added 16 while Dieng had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
Plumlee had 17 points and 12 rebounds for Duke. But the Blue Devils (30-6) couldn't overcome a poor start by Curry, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half.
This was only the second time the Blue Devils have reached the regional finals and failed to make it to the Final Four. The only other time? In 1998, when the Blue Devils lost to eventual national champion Kentucky.
"I thought we had a chance there, and then, boom," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That's what they do to teams. They can boom you."
This was the first time Pitino and Krzyzewski had met in the regional finals since that 1992 classic that ended with Christian Laettner's improbable buzzer-beater, a game now considered one of the best in NCAA tournament history.
This game will be remembered, too, but for very different reasons.
As the final seconds ticked down, Behanan, put on Ware's No. 5 jersey and stood at the end of the bench, screaming and waving a towel in triumph.
"I don't think we could have gathered ourselves - I know I couldn't have — if Kevin didn't say over and over again, 'Just go win the game,'" Pitino said. "I don't think we could have gone in the locker room with a loss after seeing that. We had to gather ourselves. We couldn't lose this game for him.
"We just couldn't."