INDIANAPOLIS – Crying and shaken by the sight of Kevin Ware writhing on the court, his right leg splintered, Rick Pitino and his Louisville players had no idea how they were going to pull it together with a half still left to play and a Final Four berth on the line.
Ware showed them the way.
“I don’t think we could have gathered ourselves – I know I couldn’t have – if Kevin didn’t say over and over again, ‘Just go win the game,’ ” Pitino said. “I don’t think we could have gone in the locker room with a loss after seeing that. We had to gather ourselves. We couldn’t lose this game for him.
“We just couldn’t.”
With Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng leading the way, the Cardinals finally shook off their grief early in the second half, erupting for a 13-2 run that Duke was powerless to answer. The 85-63 victory clinched a second straight trip to the Final Four for the top-seeded Cardinals, who are determined to win it all for Ware, a New York City native who moved to the Atlanta area for high school.
The Cardinals (33-5) will play Wichita State in the national semifinals Saturday. The ninth-seeded Shockers (30-8) added to their streak of upsets with a 70-66 victory over Ohio State on Saturday night.
As the final seconds ticked down, Ware’s best friend on the team, Chane Behanan, put on the guard’s No. 5 jersey and stood at the end of the bench, screaming. Cardinals fans chanted “Kevin Ware! Kevin Ware!”
“We talked about it every timeout, ‘Get Kevin home,’ ” Pitino said.
Smith finished with 23 points and earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the Midwest Region. Siva added 16 while Dieng had 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Mason Plumlee had 17 points and 12 rebounds for Duke. But the Blue Devils (30-6) couldn’t overcome a poor start by Seth Curry, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half, or their foul trouble.
“I thought we had a chance there, and then, boom,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That’s what they do to teams. They can boom you.”
This was the first time Pitino and Krzyzewski had met in the regional finals since that 1992 classic that ended with Christian Laettner’s improbable buzzer-beater, a game now considered one of the best in NCAA tournament history.
This game will be remembered, too, but for a very different – and much more somber – reason.
With 6:33 left in the first half, Ware, who has played a key role in Louisville’s 14-game winning streak, jumped to try and block Tyler Thornton’s 3-point shot. When he landed, Ware’s right leg snapped midway between his ankle and knee, the bone skewing almost at a right angle. Ware dropped to the floor right in front of the Louisville bench and, almost in unison, his teammates turned away in horror. Thornton grimaced, putting his hand to his mouth as he turned around.
“I heard it and then I seen what happened, (the bone) come out,” Smith said. “I immediately just, like, fell. I almost didn’t feel nothing.”
Pitino went to help Ware up and then saw the leg, which broke in two places.
“I literally almost threw up,” Pitino said, his voice catching.
As the Cardinals (33-5) gathered at halfcourt to try and regroup before play resumed, Pitino called them over to the sideline, saying Ware wanted to talk to them before he left.
“Basically, the bone popped out of the skin. It broke in two spots,” Pitino said. “Remember the bone is 6 inches out of his leg, and all he’s yelling is ‘Win the game, win the game.’ I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Pitino wiped away tears as Ware, whom Smith described as the Cardinals’ “little brother” was wheeled off the court. He underwent surgery at nearby Methodist Hospital.
“He’ll come back,” Pitino said. “We’ll get Kevin back as good as new.”