A sense of destiny descended on Atlanta when the University of Louisville basketball Cardinals took the Georgia Dome basketball court for their Final Four national semifinal game against the upstart Wichita State Shockers. And as much as WSU tried to crash the party, the Cardinals put it together late to win one more for Ware 72-68.
As the Cards warmed up in their Rise to the Occasion gear, which had the S in “Rise” replaced with a number 5, the arena could feel it. This week hasn’t been a good one for college basketball because of the PAC-12 referee scandal and the Rutgers coaching scandal. The one bright spot during all that was the feel good aspect of Kevin Ware’s recovery.
Ware got a lot of face time on ESPN, CBS and even Late Nite with David Letterman. Some of it was the rehashing of the injury he suffered against Duke in the Elite Eight. Most of it, however, veered into team and brotherhood territory as they illustrated how much the team cares for their fallen teammate.
So Louisville took that into the game and had to face a Shockers team that hadn’t been given much of a chance. For some teams, that makes you play harder than ever and that’s something the Cards had to be cognizant of. Coach Rick Pitino talked up WSU all week and they proved that he wasn’t wrong.
The nerves on the big stage were obvious when Russ Smith, normally a decent free throw shooter, missed four early. In fact, the Cards were down 8-0 before they got their first score, ironically on a fast break by Smith. There was no panic in their play, however. They just needed to calm down and play their game.
Then Louisville went on a 9 point run that erased the early Shocker advantage. As the Cards kept attacking the rim, Wichita State kept fouling because their game plan was to keep Louisville out of the paint. The plan was sound because the Cardinals had been so dominant through the whole tournament from the lane.
Montrezl Harrell put in some quality time off the bench by remaining active in the paint, despite what the Shockers wanted to do. He put up 8 points in the game.
It didn’t help Louisville that the Shockers cleared their nerves sooner. And then Smith put together a couple of three pointers in a row. He decided that since they didn’t want him in the lane, he’ll just put it up from long range.
Between Smith, Harrell and Luke Hancock, the Cards made sure it was close, knowing the adjustments were coming. The adjustments that beat Syracuse in the Big East tournament and blew out Duke last week. The Shockers were up at halftime 26-25.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton
One interesting stat was that only two Louisville starters scored in the first half so that would have to change. So Chane Behanan did just that for Louisville’s first score of the second half. He finished with 10 in the game.
Conversely, the Shockers came out on fire, getting to the rim inside and scoring from outside as well. That had the Cards on their heels which is a spot they hadn’t been in all tourney long.
With the team reeling, you had to wonder if they’d spent all their emotions during the week. Coach P knows how to manage that, but did it work? When WSU went up by 12 you had to also wonder who would step up and get the Cards playing like Cards.
Gorgui Dieng picked up his fourth foul with 12:28 on the clock. That meant Ware’s best friend Behanan needed to be good to help out Stephan Van Treese. Tim Henderson, the walk-on guard that had to play the minutes Ware couldn’t, did his part by knocking down successive triples. Would that turn the tide?
Then Hancock found a way to get inside with relative ease when he took over the ball handling duties with Siva on the bench. They closed to within 3 with 9:30 to go by using the Luke and Tim show. Now they just had to slow down Wichita State on the defensive end. The Shockers kept putting down long bombs at a pace more than their normal shooting pace. And they were nearly always money from the free throw line.
But in the last minute of the game, Hancock showed why he’s a captain on the team with a three pointer and a lay up. He finished with 20 points in the game. That’s just one point off Smith’s 21 who led all Cardinal scorers.
The Shockers kept playing til the end and they got some putbacks. They fouled Louisville in that last 60 seconds and, while the Cards didn’t knock down every free throw, they put in just enough to come out with the win.
Louisville returns to the Georgia Dome on Monday to play for the national championship against the winner of the Syracuse-Michigan game.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton