ATLANTA – 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 three-pointers 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 (31-7) for the national title 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 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 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 threes 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 three 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.
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.