ATLANTA – Their motivation sat courtside in a jersey and shorts, his broken right leg propped up onto a makeshift table and resting on a stack of white towels. Kevin Ware’s newfound celebrity happened for all the wrong reasons, because of the stomach-churning fall last Sunday that snapped his right tibia in half. A student held a sign with Ware, dressed as the Terminator, declaring “I’ll be back.” His Louisville teammates all warmed up in long-sleeve shirts with Ware’s jersey number on the back, so the Cardinals bench became an inspired line of No. 5s.
All week, as Ware appeared on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and fielded phone calls from first lady Michelle Obama, Louisville quietly set about preparing for its second straight Final Four appearance. With the spotlight trained onto their fallen guard, the Cardinals could work in peace. But the pervading sentiment echoed Ware’s words, as he stared up at the ceiling at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis: “Just go win the game.”
Turns out, the fear of disappointment can be a powerful motivator, too. For nearly 35 minutes, Wichita State sailed straight into the storm, fearless against the defense that gobbles teams whole. But behind a career performance from junior forward Luke Hancock (20 points) and a characteristically rock-solid finish, Louisville squeaked past Wichita State, 72-68, denying the ninth-seeded Shockers their opportunity at history. As Hancock sank his first free throw with 8.8 seconds left and clutched a jump ball after missing the second, the CBS cameras flashed to Ware, his nose and mouth buried into the jersey, unable to watch.
The aftermath was sweeter. Like a runaway train, the evening went from pedantic to heart-pounding in minutes. Louisville, a team that recovered from a double-digit deficit against Syracuse in the Big East title game, began to slowly batten the hatches and alter the tide. Reduced to running corner kick-outs for walk-on guard Tim Henderson, Ware’s replacement in the rotation, and high pick-and-rolls for Hancock, in his first season with the Cardinals since transferring from George Mason, they cut a 12-point lead down to three.
Leaks sprung for the Shockers. After going more than 26 minutes without a turnover, their giveaway number doubled from four to eight in a matter of moments. A shot clock violation, down 62-60 with 2 minutes 16 seconds left, paved the way for another Hancock three-pointer, his third of the evening.
The Shockers had spent their NCAA tournament dashing hopes and busting skulls behind the “play angry” style of Coach Gregg Marshall. They bristled at the Cinderella label because, as Marshall said, that particular princess only slipped on a single glass shoe. Before Saturday, Wichita State needed an entire closet to stock its collection of crystal footwear.
From the pack-line defense that prevented penetration, forcing long two-pointers and brass drives straight into the scheme’s heart, to the several seconds of clock they burned after made Louisville baskets, the Shockers had everything figured out. They were composed in the full court and powerful inside, reducing Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng to a zero-point, four-foul non-factor.
But Russ Smith, Louisville’s enigmatic star, was in peak form, missing four straight free throws to open the game but canning three of Louisville’s four deep balls by halftime. For even in Smith’s most baffling of moments, things usually work out. He finished with 20 points on 6-of-17 shooting.
Wichita State led 26-25 after a numbing first half, featuring far more amplified thuds from the miked-up metal rims than swishes. Fittingly, it ended with Peyton Siva in isolation along the left wing, waving off a flat screen from Chane Behanan that never left, before launching a deep three-pointer that skipped off the back iron. Siva and Shockers star Malcolm Armstead, two guards whose anticipated matchup was billed as a must-see, were a combined 0 for 11.
The Shockers settled in against Louisville’s smothering full-court press, committing just four turnovers in the opening 20 minutes. The Cardinals, meanwhile, went more than five minutes without a field goal, ending the drought with a breakaway Smith layup, but quickly sank into another six-minute scoreless stretch.