With a Ware prayer, Cards beat WSU
ATLANTA -- Kevin Ware couldn't help but be angry, even as he prayed to God.
There he was, leaning over the edge of the raised floor with his broken leg elevated on a chair, and he couldn't do anything -- couldn't line up in Louisville's press, couldn't attack the rim on offense, couldn't let Luke Hancock space the floor in the corner, couldn't keep a walk-on, Tim Henderson, from having to play the biggest minutes of his life down double digits in the second half in the national semifinals.
Louisville couldn't get into the lane, couldn't force turnovers, couldn't land a clean punch. There were 13 minutes left. The Cardinals were down 12.
The unflappable Shockers were going to pull off this upset, and none of the post-injury whirlwind insanity of the past week -- sudden national celebrity, a "Late Show" appearance, a shoutout at the Ludacris concert Saturday afternoon -- mattered anymore.
His brothers were going to lose, and there was nothing he could do.
"I was mad," Ware said.
Louisville was going to run its stuff. The Cardinals weren't going to change, even down 12 or 10 or five to Wichita State in the second half of the closest game the national championship favorite has played in more than a month. You can't change now. In the Final Four, you are who you are.
So there it was, textbook as ever, the Louisville offense: A spaced floor, a high-angled ball screen, a ball handler plunging into the lane. And there was the Louisville defense, same as ever -- a trapping press that makes most opponents curl into a ball and softly whimper.
But Wichita State wouldn't play along. The Shockers kept sinking their defense into the lane, forcing Louisville to take dreaded jump shots. And even when one of those jump shots went in, Malcolm Armstead and Ron Baker kept handling the pressure with unusual ease.
"Thoughts went through my head," Behanan said.
Russ Smith was on the bench. "I kept waiting for us to make our run," Smith said.
Rick Pitino was shouting at his team, trying to get them to stay the course: "'We're going to win, we're going to win,'" Peyton Siva said. "That's what he kept repeating to us."
Hancock was on the floor, and so was Henderson -- Hancock the unlikely ball handler, Henderson the little-used floor-spacer in the corner. The clock wound down, Gorgui Dieng set the ball screen, Hancock drove right -- and found Henderson in the corner for a 3.
It went in.
"And then," Smith said, "it happened."
Henderson made a second 3 a possession later -- his third and fourth of the 2012-13 season. The Cardinals cut the lead to 47-41. With 10 minutes left, Hancock took another screen, this time driving left -- and this time finishing a blind reverse left-handed layup that even his own teammates didn't know he had. Wichita State didn't collapse -- Tekele Cotton made a 3 from the corner -- but the tenor had changed, the crowd was more engaged, the game incontrovertibly close. Behanan made four free throws in two possessions; Siva drove for a layup; Behanan another strong post jumper.
With 6:18 left to play, Hancock hit a 3, giving the Cardinals a 56-55 lead. And then, finally, the press began to do its work.
Fred VanVleet turned it over. Armstead turned it over. Cotton turned it over. Van Vleet turned it over again. The Shockers committed just four turnovers in the first 34 minutes; they committed six in the next six.
With two minutes left, there was Hancock again -- shooting a 3 on the break, catching and driving and spinning and finishing in the lane -- to give the Cardinals a 67-62 lead. Those five points gave Hancock 19 to that point, on six of nine from the field and three of five from 3.
"You just try and go out there and play it like it's any other game," Hancock said. "If you're open, shoot it. If you're not, drive it and pass to another guy."
Nonchalant as he attempted to be, the end result of Hancock's sudden brilliance was the final cracking open of an otherwise inscrutable Wichita State team. He pushed the No. 1-seeded Cardinals past the finish in the first close game of the tournament -- their first close game since early March.
"The shooting I expect," Behanan said of Hancock's performance. "The driving, the ball up in the air, flipping it up there. That's Peyton stuff. You expect that out of Peyton, not out of Luke."
And if that wasn't unlikely and remarkable and mind-blowing enough for you, remember that Hancock finished the run Henderson started.
Henderson finished with six points.
"The players said they weren't surprised about him making those back-to-back 3s," Pitino said. "They're being kind. I was very surprised."
When a reporter asked Behanan what he would have said if he knew Hancock and Henderson would be the MVPs in the national semifinal, he smiled and cocked his head.
"I probably would have ignored you," he said.
Hancock finished with 20, the last one coming with eight seconds left, on the front of a two-shot foul, when Wichita State fouled down 70-68 in the hopes of one final heave. Smith made a series of key free throws down the stretch, but there was still some final business to attend to.
Ware was still there on the sideline, in his same spot, with his arm up on the hardwood, only this time his head was buried in his shirt. He refused to watch. He was less angry now, but he was still praying.
"I put my head in my shirt when Luke went to the line," Ware said. "Because the first thing that popped into my mind was how he said a prayer for me when I went down with the injury that got me on the sideline for this game. He was just being my brother, and I put Luke in my prayers."
Hancock made the first but missed the second, and a defensive rebound would have given Wichita State, down 71-68, one more chance to tie the game. But when the ball bounced into Baker's hands, it was close enough for Hancock to grab and tie it up -- forcing a jump ball that gave Louisville possession and the game.
"[Louisville equipment manager] Vinny [Tatum] was tapping me on the shoulder like, 'We good, we good,'" Ware said.
"And I was like: 'Nah, I'll keep praying.'"
ROAD TO ATLANTA
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