Down 12, Louisville rallies for place in NCAA final
By Ben Shipgel, N.Y. Times News Service
ATLANTA -- In Louisville's first 160 minutes of basketball this NCAA tournament, its faithful could count how many times they were even moderately worried about their Cardinals on one hand. With five fingers down.
And then came Saturday's national semifinal against the Wichita State Shockers, who played angry, played nasty, imposing their will on a team that already had expended a great deal of emotion and energy over the last week.
Louisville had just enough in reserve to escape the Georgia Dome with a 72-68 victory that highlighted its resilience, another dimension of a team known for its superior talent.
With guard Kevin Ware, who sustained a grotesque leg injury in the regional final against Duke, looking on from beside the Louisville bench, the Cardinals rebounded from a 12-point second-half deficit to advance to their first national championship game since 1986.
At one point in the second half, Ware joined the huddle during a timeout -- "I thought he was about to sub in for me, I'm so used to it," Peyton Siva said -- but he spent most of the night seated, watching Luke Hancock emerge as the Cardinals' best player, scoring 20 points while shooting 6 for 9.
Chane Behanan sloughed aside a scoreless first half to score 10 points and grab nine rebounds, and Tim Henderson, a junior walk-on who was elevated in Ware's absence, made 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to ignite a 21-8 run that propelled Louisville to its first lead of the second half.
"Once he hit those shots, I knew this was it," Hancock said. "We were going to make our run now, or it wasn't going to happen."
The second-half run is a staple for Louisville coach Rick Pitino. He always expects his teams to be in superior condition, to exploit the fatigue that the opposition eventually feels from handling Louisville's defense. After committing only four turnovers in the first half -- and going nearly 26 minutes without one -- Wichita State gave the ball back five times on seven possessions in the final seven minutes.
"First you get used to it, and then they increase the intensity," Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. "It kind of hits you in waves, sort of. Towards the end of the game, it kind of took over."
It was a difficult conclusion for the Shockers, who stampeded through the upset-riddled West Region, ousting the top two seeds, Gonzaga and Ohio State, en route to claiming the program's first Final Four berth since 1965. Pitino told his players, repeatedly, how much Wichita State scared him, but the Cardinals played tentatively for long stretches, content to let the Shockers control the pace. A few Louisville players said they underestimated Wichita State.
"I don't think we took them as seriously as we should have," Behanan said.
Pitino recently paid Wichita State the ultimate compliment, characterizing its defense as "Marquette on steroids." Performance-enhancing, indeed. The Shockers hounded and they swarmed. They turned the lane into a password-protected zone, and it was as if Louisville lost the key. With Gorgui Dieng neutralized inside and Russ Smith unable to penetrate, the Cardinals opted for outside shots, taking 13 three-pointers in the first half.
Six minutes into the second half, when Wichita State led by 12, its pep band played its catchy anthem, chanting, "You don't want to go war with the Shockers." Perhaps, but at the time, Louisville did not have any choice.
With Siva practically invisible, Hancock stabilized a Louisville offense that has come to resemble Novocain: give it time, and it will work. Pitino called Hancock one of the best sixth men in the country, but he was pressed into a leading role Saturday night, with the rotation of guards thinned because of Ware's injury. That was also how Henderson came to play 10 minutes, his second-highest total this season.
Henderson grew up in Louisville, grew up following the Cardinals around the country. Out of high school, he had two choices if he wanted to continue his career: Indiana University Southeast, an NAIA school, or Louisville, where he could walk on, which he did after an impressive performance during an open gym with some members of the team.
But it was Hancock who made the game's biggest shot, a 3-pointer from the wing with 2 minutes 3 seconds left that extended the Cardinals' lead to 65-60 and resulted in about 12 fist-pumps. Wichita State drew 2 points behind, on a tip-in by Cleanthony Early with 31.6 seconds remaining, but no closer.
"You can be up by 20," said Shockers guard Teleke Cotton, "but it can still be a close game."
Louisville is so talented that even games it trails by 12 are within striking distance. No deficit is too large for a team that has not lost since Feb. 9, in five overtimes at Notre Dame, winning its past 15 games by an average of 16.5 points. Louisville had the second-best turnover margin in the country, had forced the second-most steals, and is now one victory from being the best team in the country. It was close, but, then again, it wasn't.n