ATLANTA – Russ Smith looked at the scoreboard, then at the clock, then over at the bench.
Louisville needed a run, but he had no idea where it was going to come from. The starters were struggling, the fouls were piling up and the only lift injured Kevin Ware could give the top-seeded Cardinals was an emotional one.
“It was like, ‘Man’,” Smith said. “I was actually waiting for our run. And it happened. Luke exploded. That was actually what I was waiting for. Then Chane exploded. Then Peyton made a big layup. Then Tim Henderson. It just kept going and going.”
And Louisville rode it all the way to the title game.
Luke Hancock scored 20 points off the bench, Henderson sparked a second-half rally with a pair of monster 3s and Louisville reminded everyone it can grind it out, too, advancing to the NCAA basketball title game Saturday night after escaping with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State.
Louisville will play Michigan for the national title Monday night. The Cardinals (34-5) have had this game in their sights since losing to Kentucky in last year’s Final Four, and they got added motivation after Ware’s tibia snapped during last weekend’s Midwest Regional final, the bone poking through the skin.
Ware was on his feet when the final buzzer sounded, grinning and throwing his arms into the air.
“We’ve got to bring our best game,” Ware said. “It’s the last game of the season. If we lose, everything we’ve worked for just goes down the drain. That’s the last thing we want right now.”
Especially after such a close call against the ninth-seeded Shockers (30-9), who nearly pulled off their biggest upset.
Wichita State had knocked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 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.
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 rally trumped them all.
“We just played super hard,” said Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points. “Nobody wanted to go home.”
Henderson, the walk-on who was forced into increased playing time because of Ware’s injury, made those back-to-back 3s to spark a 21-8 run. While Hancock and Behanan were hitting shots, Smith and Peyton Siva were turning up the heat on the Shockers, forcing them into seven turnovers in the final seven minutes after they’d gone more than 26 minutes without one.
The first came when Siva darted in to strip the ball away from Carl Hall. Siva fed Hancock, who drilled a 3 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,” said Wichita State’s Malcolm Armstead, who had just two points on 1-of-10 shooting. “I can’t give you an explanation – it just happened.”
Cleanthony Early would give 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. The Cardinals extended the lead to 65-60 on a tip-in of a Smith miss and another 3 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.