By Noah Allison–
Sunday in Indianapolis, after an 85-63 defeat of the Duke Blue Devils in the Elite Eight, the Cardinals found themselves holding up two trophies. One, a Midwest Regional trophy for going to the program’s second straight Final Four, the other being Kevin Ware’s No. 5 jersey.
For everyone around the nation that was watching, this was no mere basketball game. The first 13 minutes were as competitive as anyone could have expected out of this matchup of historic programs and legendary coaches. The game was played with the intensity of a national championship, but that game ended with the Cardinals leading 21-20.
With 6:33 remaining, Duke player Tyler Thornton made a three point shot attempt that was contested by Louisville’s emerging sophomore Kevin Ware. Ware had a career high 11 points in the previous Sweet Sixteen win against Oregon. Ware jumped, landed, and fell to the ground directly in front of the Cardinal bench with a leg visibly broken in two places. The crowd was shocked and even the commentators were speechless. Cardinals were sobbing and Rick Pitino was wiping away his own tears while trying to remain strong. Everyone seemed to be focused on Ware’s injury, except Kevin Ware.
“I don’t think any of us, with what we had to witness, could have overcome it,” head coach Rick Pitino revealed, “if it wasn’t for Kevin Ware, 12 times saying to the guys, ‘I’ll be fine. Win the game!’”
From 6:33 on, a new game was played, a game to get Kevin Ware back home to Atlanta. For the first time all year, the No. 1 team in the country had a real reason to play.
Junior guard Russ Smith continued his takeover of the tournament and led the Cardinals with 23 points. Junior center Gorgui Dieng made his presence felt with 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. Sophomore forward Chane Behanan was reaching further than normal and brought in eight rebounds, had eight points and led the team in steals with three. Senior guard Peyton Siva was able to show off his own passing abilities by dishing out four assists along with his 16 points.
“First, when Kevin went down, it was devastating for all of us,” Siva said. “But we just came together and Kevin Ware really was the reason why we pulled this game out. I don’t know how he got the strength to do it, but he told us to go out there and win.”
Louisville’s defense shut Duke down with nine blocked shots. Duke turned the ball over 12 times while Duke’s Seth Curry who had 29 points and six 3-pointers in the Sweet Sixteen win over Michigan St. was scoreless in the first half and held to 12 points overall. When the game was tied at 42, U of L went on a defensive stand that left Duke without a field goal for eight minutes. The best defensive team in the country outscored Duke 50-31 in the second half.
“I just said to them over and over and over, and at halftime, ‘We know our game plan offensively and defensively. If we let up for a second, then Kevin Ware doesn’t mean how much he means to us. We’re going to dig in. We’re going to play this game to the end. We’ll get him back home, nurse him to good health, and we’re going to get him to Atlanta,’” Pitino said.
The Cardinals have won 14 games in a row, and they are going back to the Final Four for the second consecutive year. Russ Smith is dominating the tournament with 101 points, scoring at least 20 in all four games thus far.
“We knew all along that we were good, and we knew how great of a team we are,” Smith said. “Coach knew it, the whole staff knew it. We had faith in each other. All we had to do was put it together.”
This will be U of L’s 10th trip to the Final Four, and they head down to Atlanta with a mission.
“This year was about humility,” Pitino explained. “The one thing that could beat us was a lack of humility. The guys were great at that. They all bought in. They know what it is to play for Louisville.”
“It’s going to be a heck of a Final Four,” Pitino continued. “I’m just really, really pleased that it’s Kevin’s home and we can get him back home.”
The Cardinals will play No. 9 Wichita State on Saturday, April 6 at 6:05 p.m.
Photos by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal