ATLANTA — The deficit was getting bigger, the clock becoming an enemy and Louisville’s options were dwindling.
“I just kept telling the guys ... ‘We’re going to make a run. It’s about defense,’” coach Rick Pitino said. “The tempo is not ours. Give them their credit, but the bench won the game for us tonight. Unbelievable display.”
Impressive comeback, too.
Luke Hancock came off the bench to score 20 points, walk-on Tim Henderson sparked a second-half rally with a pair of monster 3-pointers and Louisville advanced to the NCAA title game, escaping with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State on Saturday night.
Now the Cardinals (34-5) will try to 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 Michigan for the national title Monday night. It is the Cardinals’ first trip to the title game since they won it all in 1986.
“We just played super hard,” said Russ Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points. “Nobody wanted to go home.”
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 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 out of sorts after an emotional week following Ware’s gruesome injury; he snapped his tibia and the bone broke through the skin during last weekend’s Midwest Regional final.
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.
“It’s tough for Wichita State to lose this game tonight because they played great. We had to dig in,” Pitino said. “Four of our starters had their worst start of the season. We had to win the game with our second unit.”
Henderson, the walk-on who was forced into increased playing time because of Ware’s injury, made back-to-back threes to spark a 21-8 run. While Hancock and Chane Behanan were knocking down shots, Smith and Peyton Siva were turning up the heat on the Shockers.
After Wichita State went more than 26 minutes without a turnover, Siva darted in to strip the ball away from Carl Hall. He 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,” Wichita State’s Malcolm Armstead said. “I can’t give you an explanation — it just happened.”
Early gave 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-pointer 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.
As the final buzzer sounded, 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,” 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.
He urged his teammates to “just go win the game” before being wheeled off the court on a stretcher last weekend. Three days later, he joined the Cardinals as they made the trip to the Final Four in Atlanta, Ware’s hometown.
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. He had a seat at the end of the bench, his right leg propped up on towels, 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.
“There’s a reason our starters played poorly, because Wichita State is that good,” Pitino said
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 (Armstead and Ron Baker) 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 liked — 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.
“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, maybe gamble a little more.”
The Shockers have had trouble hanging onto leads, and this game was no different. Once Henderson buried those back-to-back 3s the Cardinals were off and running, all the way to the last game of the season.
“Coach Pitino kept telling us to go out there and have fun and keep playing and we were going to win. Stop hanging our heads,” Siva said.
“That’s what we did.”