No shocker as Louisville advances to NCAA finalATLANTA, Georgia - Russ Smith looked at the scoreboard, then at the clock, then over at the bench.
Louisville needed a run. Starters were struggling, 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 3-pointers and Louisville reminded everyone it can grind it out, too, advancing to the NCAA title game Saturday night with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State.
Louisville will play Michigan, which beat Syracuse 61-56 in the other semifinal, for the national championship Monday night, Tuesday morning Korea time. 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 of all.
Wichita State knocked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga and Ohio State on the way to its first Final Four since 1965, and the Shockers had a 12-point lead with 13:35 to play.
But Louisville came back to win five games after trailing by nine points or more this year, including rallying from a 16-point deficit in the title game at the Big East tournament.
“We just played super hard,” said Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points. “Nobody wanted to go home.”
As the final buzzer sounded, Chane Behanan tossed the ball high into the air and Henderson and Hancock did a flying shoulder bump at mid-court.
“It’s just a mix of emotions, of feelings. It hurts to have to lose and be the end of the season,” said Early, who led the Shockers with 24 points. “But these guys fought to the end, and we had a great season and keep our heads high.”
The Cardinals were the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, and they steamrolled their way through their first four games, winning by an average of almost 22 points. They limited opponents to 59 points and 42 percent shooting while harassing them into almost 18 turnovers a game, setting an NCAA tourney record with 20 steals against North Carolina A&T.