Atlanta, GA – Unable to watch, Kevin Ware had his face in his jersey as Louisville attempted its game-sealing free throws down the stretch.
The Cardinals were challenged for the first time during the NCAA Tournament, but ratcheted up their full-court press when they needed to at the end.
Russ Smith had 21 points and Luke Hancock added 20 off the bench as Louisville downed gritty and valiant Wichita State, 72-68, to advance to its first national championship game since 1986, when the Cardinals last won it all.
Louisville (34-5) led 70-68 with 8.1 seconds left as Hancock stepped to the foul line following a layup from the Shockers' Carl Hall. Hancock sunk the first shot and missed the second. As the ball ricocheted sharply off the back rim on the second attempt, Wichita State's Ron Baker appeared to secure the rebound, but Hancock reached in and forced a jump ball. The possession arrow was in favor of Louisville.
"I was forced to dribble the ball because I lost my balance," Baker said of the held ball. "I thought the ball was loose before the whistle was blown. I tapped it to Malcolm (Armstead). They already called jump ball."
Smith then stepped up to the line with 4.9 ticks to go and split the pair to seal the outcome.
Louisville will play Michigan for the national title on Monday.
Ware, who suffered a gruesome leg injury during last Sunday's South Regional Final against Duke, sat at the end of the court next to the elevated platform. The reserve guard broke his right leg while leaping to block a 3-point try by the Blue Devils' Tyler Thornton with 6:33 remaining in the first half. His injury elicited an emotional reaction from his teammates, as well as the entire nation, during the week leading up to Saturday's game.
Louisville's vaunted pressure defense forced four Wichita State turnovers over the first seven minutes, but didn't get another one for the next 26 as the Shockers built up a lead as large as 12 -- Louisville's largest deficit of the tourney -- during the middle stages of the second half.
"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."
The Cardinals, though, were able to generate seven giveaways over the final 6:45.
"We just made some adjustments and said, We're going to rotate a little bit differently," Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said of the press. "What happens in the press, if you play an extremely well-coached team, you may have one run per game. If you're going against guys that are freshmen, not great ball handlers, then you may have three or four runs. But we had an extended run there and they don't turn it over."
Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, blew the competition away over its first four contests. The Cards won by an average of nearly 22 points, while forcing almost 18 turnovers a tilt.
Cleanthony Early tallied 24 points and 10 rebounds to lead the No. 9 seed Shockers (30-9), who were in the Final Four for the first time since 1965. Hall finished with 13 points, while Baker added 11 points and eight boards in defeat.
Wichita State controlled the tempo of the contest throughout and attacked the offensive glass, where it finished with a 14-11 margin. The Shockers also built walls in the driving lanes as Louisville struggled to penetrate. Twenty- five of the Cardinals' 49 field-goal attempts were from beyond the arc, where they made nine.
Louisville's bench, which outscored Wichita State's 34-9, sparked the Cardinals during a 21-8 run after Early nailed a left-wing triple to give the Shockers their 12-point cushion, 47-35. with 13:41 remaining. Walk-on Tim Henderson ignited the surge.
Henderson netted just 16 points during the year, but knocked down back-to-back right-corner treys to start the burst. Hancock had seven points during the swing, including a triple to conclude it following Peyton Siva's steal of Hall that vaulted the Cards to their first lead of the second half, 56-55, with 6:35 to play.
"I was actually waiting for our run. And it happened," Smith said. "Luke exploded ... Then Chane (Behanan) exploded. Then Peyton made a big layup. Then Tim Henderson. It just kept going and going."
The Shockers gave the ball away six times over their next nine possessions, and Chane Behanan's tip-in and Hancock's 3-pointer on consecutive Louisville trips down the floor vaulted the Cards to a 65-60 edge with two minutes remaining.
A pair of Early baskets, sandwiched around a Hancock layup, pulled the Shockers within 67-64 with 49.2 ticks left. Instead of playing out the possession, Wichita State elected to extend the game and fouled Smith, who split a pair to make it 68-64.
Early tipped home an offensive rebound with 37.5 seconds to go before Smith sunk two free throws. Hall's layup then cut the deficit to two with 12 seconds left.
With the Cardinals starting out the contest in their matchup zone, Early and Baker hit 3-pointers as the Shockers jumped out to an 8-0 lead. Louisville responded with a 13-2 push to go ahead, with Wichita State committing all four of its first-half turnovers during that stretch.
Smith struggled early on. He missed his first four free throws and three shots from the floor before hitting on his final four of the first half, including three from beyond the arc.
The Shockers, though, took a slim 26-25 lead into the break.
The Cardinals were 11-of-19 from the floor over the final 13 minutes of the game. They finished the tilt 22-of-49 (44.9 percent) from the field ... Siva was limited to just seven points on 1-of-9 shooting.