By Xavier Bleuel–
Louisville has a theme this postseason: Keep their eyes on the bigger prize.
The nets are still intact in Lucas Oil Stadium, just as they were intact in Madison Square Garden after the Big East Championship victory.
There is something brighter in the future, the National Championship.
Coming into the Elite 8 matchup between Duke and Louisville already had all of the storylines needed for a great matchup.
Two heavyweight programs, two hall-of-fame coaches, the highest seeds remaining in the tourney, the Cardinals attempting to avenge an early season loss to Duke with a chance to reach their second consecutive Final Four. However, it was a gruesome injury that stole the show, and the emotion of all inside of Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Russ Smith scored 24 points, Peyton Siva scored 16 points and Gorgui Dieng recorded a double-double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks to lead the Cardinals (33-5) over the Duke Blue Devils (32-6) to advance to their second straight Final Four. However, statistics mean little to the Cardinals as they suffered a loss to Kevin Ware when he broke his right tibia on a shot block attempt with 6:41 mark left in the first half.
The aftermath of Louisville’s Kevin Ware graphic break was something no one present will ever forget.
“I heard it pop,” said Smith. “I never thought in a million years that I would see something like that, especially to someone like Kevin Ware.”
Ware was immediately rushed to local Meridian Hospital.
CBS announcer Jim Nantz said Monday that it’s hard mentally to move on from the dramatic injury on Sunday.
Nantz, who called the game with Clark Kellogg, said, “When you’re that close to it, it’s hard to get the image out of your mind. … You replay it over and over in your head.”
Senior guard Peyton Siva and junior guard Russ Smith dropped to the ground while sophomore forward Chane Behanan, who’s a close friend of Ware, fell to the court in agonizing disbelief.
“The bond Chane and Kevin share is unmatched in the locker room,” Smith stated. “They’re on a whole different level, they’re brothers.”
The players on the bench vomited as they saw their teammate’s disfigured leg while Coach Rick Pitino wiped away tears.
“That was the worst thing I have witnessed on the basketball court,” said Pitino. “I’ve been through worse during 9/11 and losing a son, but nothing ever like that in front of my players.”
While being attended to on the court, Ware tried to get the attention of his teammates but they couldn’t hear them.
“Guys!” Pitino yelled. “He wants to say something.”
The team surrounded Ware and he told them what is now the teams new rallying cry, “Just win it for me, y’all.”
During halftime, Pitino gathered his somber bunch and told his team to win for Ware. Tears were abundant while the Cardinals tried to regroup. Ware is an Atlanta native, playing high school ball 24 miles from the Georgia Dome, the site of the Final Four.
“We couldn’t lose this game for him,” Pitino stated “We just couldn’t.”
Those words spoken by Ware helped comforted the Louisville team as they came out of the second half and routed the Blue Devils 50-32 behind a 17-2 run within a four minute span. The Cardinals blitzed Duke with heavy pressure, contesting every shot, pressing, and attacked the basket with unmatched intensity. The Cardinals shot 59.2 percent in the second half to blow by Duke.
The Blue Devils and star senior guard Seth Curry, guarded by Luke Hancock for the majority of the game, just couldn’t keep up.
“Coach tells Luke that he’s the worst defender he’s ever seen,” said Smith, who had to fight back tears for the duration of entire press conference. “He [Luke] wanted to come out and prove a point, and he did.”
“They just come at you the whole game,” Curry said. “They’re a great backcourt, and it was a tough test today.”
This was the first meeting between Coach Pitino and Duke’s coach Mike Krzyrewski since the thriller in 1992 when Christian Lattener hit the jumper as time expired to propel Duke to the Final Four, in what many call as the best moment in college basketball history.
Although Pitino was on the losing end of the game, he is still honored to be a part of one of the greatest games in tournament history.
“I think about that game often,” Pitino said during practice the day prior. “Not for a revenge factor, but just being part of a great game.”
Earlier in the season, Louisville fell to the Blue Devils 76-71 in the finals of the Battle for Atlantis. The Cards battled valiantly from behind the entire game even without Dieng, who was out because of a broken wrist. Stephan Van Tresse and Zach Price filled in valiantly for Dieng; however, his presence was greatly missed.
“We know how hard it is to beat Duke,” Pitino added, “If you let Duke shoot and you let Duke get in transition, you’re going to lose. We took those two things away.”
It was a tight contest for the first 24 minutes of game time. That’s when the aforementioned streak ensued and the rout was on.
“I thought we had a chance there, and then boom,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s what they do to teams.”
Although he is the head coach of Florida International, Richard Pitino often helps out his dad scout his opponent, the job previously held by Richard at Louisville. He suggested to his father a different way to attack Duke’s frontcourt of Ryan Kelly and All-American Mason Plumlee with their defense of the pick-and-roll.
“It worked to perfection,” Pitino said. “That’s all he’s going to get from me.”
After the game was in hand and reserve were in, Behanan stood on the bench and wore Ware’s jersey and held it up high during the teams’ celebration while Pitino took the microphone and asked the fans to help chant “Ke-vin, Ke-vin.”
“April 8th!” A few fans shouted in the stands—the day of the National Championship, the only date Louisville would cut down any nets.
Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng, Mason Plumlee, and Seth Curry made the all-Midwest regional team. Smith, who averaged 26 points per game during the tournament so far, earned MVP honors.
Kevin Ware had successful surgery late Sunday night and will be on the bench next to his teammates in Atlanta.
“This is a minor setback for a major comeback,” Ware told the New York Daily News on Monday. “I have to have the right approach to it. Doctors told me things are gonna be good for me. This is not a lifetime injury where I can never play basketball again. But getting to where I want to be and where I need to be is gonna take some time.”
“I jumped and my leg felt kind of funny,” Ware told ESPN.com. “When Coach tried to help me up, he gave me a funny kind of look. I’m looking at him and then I look down and I see my bone sticking out. It wasn’t a hurt feeling. I just went into shock. In the moment, you don’t know what’s wrong with you. You’re just looking, thinking, ‘How did this happen?’ I never watched the replay. I never want to.”
Up next for the Cardinals is a matchup with the fast-paced, defensive-minded Shockers of Wichita State. The Cardinals’ backcourt minus Ware will be tested. The Shockers have only allowed 28 percent from three while holding Ohio State to only 66 points on 70 possessions.
Tip-off will be at 6:09 eastern time on Saturday, April 6th.
Photo by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal