Louisville to take on Michigan for the NCAA title
By Randy Whetstone Jr. —
Louisville will compete for its third national championship in school history Monday, after coming from behind to beat the feisty Wichita State Shockers, 72-68, on Saturday.
The Cards have won 15 in a row and compiled a 34-5 record – the most wins in team history. Michigan defeated Louisville’s Big East foe Syracuse, 61-56, in the other semifinal contest to set up the title game – Louisville’s first since winning it all in 1986.
After the tense win, forward Chane Behanan said: “Having not been in a national championship in, – I don’t know when – before I was born, and having the most wins in Louisville history, that’s big, too. I’m glad to be a part of this tradition; it’s just an honor and a blessing.”
Luke Hancock came off the bench in the first half but started the second half and led a late rally for No. overall seed Louisville team, scoring 14 of his 20 points in the second half. Hancock hit a clutch three-point shot, which gave Louisville a five-point lead, 65-60, with 2:06 remaining in the ballgame.
That provided enough cushion for the Cards as they nursed a small lead, and a two-possession game. Free throws by Russ Smith and Hancock sealed the win for Louisville 72-68 placing them in position to win a national championship.
As a whole, Louisville didn’t play with the dominant demeanor everyone has been accustomed to see throughout the game. Many starters struggled and Coach Rick Pitino gave credit to Wichita State.
“Four of our starters had their worst night of the season,” Pitino said. “We had to win this game with our second unit of Stephen Van Treese, a walk-on, Tim Henderson, one of the best six men in all of basketball Luke Hancock, and Montrezl Harrell. There’s a reason our starters played poorly: it’s because Wichita State is that good. So we’re really happy to play in the final game.”
Louisville fans tried to rally the team and especially to pull for the injured Kevin Ware, holding “Win for Ware” signs. Ware was present with his teammates physically on the sideline, and present with the team spiritually on the court. In his physical absence on the court Hancock picked up the slack. Senior guard Peyton Siva in a poor shooting night, going 1-9 from the field, 0-5 from three point land, was encouraged by the efforts of his teammate.
“Luke is an excellent player and an excellent person,” Siva said of the co-captain. “He really showed his leadership out there tonight. He showed his leadership when Kevin got injured. He’s just an all-around great player and person. Tonight, he showed the world what he is capable of doing.”
The Cardinals found themselves in unfamiliar territory when they were down 12 in the second half. Russ Smith led the team with 21 points and explained his emotions when his team was so far behind.
“I feel like when it went to 12, I looked at it and the time kept going down and we kept fouling,” Smith said. “I was actually waiting for our run, and it happened; Luke exploded, then Chane exploded. It kept going and going, and obviously I knew it wasn’t my night, but I was so happy to see everyone else contributing; it was so special.”
One unlikely contributor was walk-on guard Tim Henderson. Henderson gave oxygen to Louisville when everyone in red was gasping for air. Behanan, who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, commended his teammate for hitting two three-pointers to cut the lead to six.
“He does that in practice all the time, and I’m just happy it converted when it counted, Behanan said. “He gave us two big three’s down in the clutch. He contributed with Luke, myself, and Russ and I’m just happy we pulled it out.”
Siva, in assessing his performance with seven points, said, “It was just one of those nights.” After exalting his teammates, Siva said, “I just wanted to win. That’s all that mattered to me, whether my shot was falling or not, as long as we won I was fine with how everything panned out.”
Smith was pleased with the effort as Louisville dug in deep to rally to victory. “We just played super hard,” Smith said. “Nobody wanted to go home. Wichita State did a great job of hanging with us, sticking with their game. We just fought really hard.”
Coach Pitino will be coaching for his second National Championship. His win percentage in tournament play is 74 percent ranking him fifth among active coaches, and 13 all-time. He has led Louisville to three final fours, with this being his first attempt at finishing the season on top. Louisville will have one day to prepare for the grand finale versus the Michigan Wolverines. Both teams have the two best backcourts in the nation, one player being Trey Burke who was recently named national player of the year.
Photo: Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal