ATLANTA — The deficit was getting bigger, the clock 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.”
Impressive comeback, too.
Luke Hancock came off the bench to score 20 points, walk-on Tim Henderson sparked a second-half rally with a pair of monster 3s and Louisville advanced to the NCAA title game Saturday night, escaping with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State.
Now the Cardinals (34-5) will try and win it all 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 the winner of Syracuse-Michigan for the national title Monday night. It is the Cardinals’ first trip to the title game since they won it all in 1986.
“We just played super hard,” said Russ Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points. “Nobody wanted to go home.”
Cleanthony Early had 24 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 Ohio State on its way to its first Final Four since 1965, and the Shockers had a 12-point lead on Louisville with 13:35 to play. It was the largest deficit all tournament for the Cardinals, who seemed out of sorts after an emotional week following Ware’s gruesome injury; he snapped his tibia and the bone broke through the skin during last weekend’s Midwest Regional final.
But Louisville had come back to win five games after trailing by nine points or more already this year, including rallying from a 16-point deficit in the title game at the Big East tournament.
This one trumped them all.
“It’s tough for Wichita State to lose this game tonight 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, the walk-on who was forced into increased playing time because of Ware’s injury, made back-to-back 3s to spark a 21-8 run.
While Hancock and Behanan were knocking down shots, Smith and Peyton Siva were turning up the heat on the Shockers.
After going more than 26 minutes without a turnover, Siva darted in to strip the ball away from Carl Hall. He fed Hancock, who drilled a 3 that gave Louisville a 56-55 lead, its first since the end of the first half.