Men's Final Four | Louisville 72, Wichita State 68: Defense, bench spark comeback for Cardinals
ATLANTA — The deficit was getting bigger, the clock was becoming an enemy and Louisville’s options were dwindling.
“I just kept telling the guys … ‘We’re going to make a run. It’s about defense,’ ” coach Rick Pitino said. “The tempo is not ours. Give them their credit, but the bench won the game for us tonight. Unbelievable display.”
Luke Hancock came off the bench to score 20 points, walk-on Tim Henderson sparked a second-half rally with a pair of monster three-pointers and Louisville advanced to the NCAA championship game, escaping with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State last night.
Now the Cardinals (34-5) will try to win it all on Monday night for their emotional leader on the bench, injured Kevin Ware. As the final buzzer sounded, Ware stood up, grinning as he thrust his arms above his head.
Louisville will play Michigan for the national title. It is the Cardinals’ first trip to the title game since they won it all in 1986.
“We just played super hard,” said guard Russ Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points. “Nobody wanted to go home.”
Cleanthony Early had 24 points for the ninth-seeded Shockers (30-9), who nearly pulled off their biggest upset of all.
Wichita State had knocked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 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. It was the largest deficit of the tournament for the Cardinals.But Louisville had come back to win five games after trailing by nine points or more this season, including from a 16-point deficit in the Big East Tournament title game. This one trumped them all.
“It’s tough for Wichita State to lose this game because they played great. We had to dig in,” Pitino said. “Four of our starters had their worst start of the season. We had to win the game with our second unit.”
Henderson, who was forced into increased playing time because of Ware’s broken leg suffered last weekend in a regional final, made back-to-back three-pointers to spark a 21-8 run. While Hancock and Chane Behanan were knocking down shots, Smith and Peyton Siva were turning up the heat.Wichita State had gone more than 26 minutes without a turnover before Siva darted in to strip the ball away from Carl Hall. He fed Hancock, who drilled a three-pointer 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,” Shockers guard Malcolm Armstead said.
Early gave Wichita State one more lead, converting a three-point play. But Siva scored and then Smith stole the ball and took it in for a layup that gave Louisville a 60-58 lead with 4:47 left.
Wichita State had one last chance, pulling within 68-66 on Early’s tip-in with 22 seconds to go. But the Shockers were forced to foul, and Smith and Hancock made their free throws to seal the victory.
As the final buzzer sounded, Behanan tossed the ball high into the air and Henderson and Hancock did a flying shoulder bump at midcourt.
“It hurts to have to lose and be the end of the season,” Early said. “But these guys fought to the end, and we had a great season.”