INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — With tears in their eyes and Kevin Ware in their hearts, there was no way Louisville was losing this game.
Russ Smith scored 23, Gorgui Dieng had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, and top-seeded Louisville put aside the shock from Ware’s gruesome leg injury to earn a second straight trip to the Final Four with an 85-63 victory over Duke on Sunday afternoon.
As the final seconds ticked down, Chane Behanan put Ware’s jersey on and stood at the end of the Louisville bench, screaming. Cardinals fans chanted “Kevin Ware! Kevin Ware!”
“We won this for him,” coach Rick Pitino said. “We were all choked up with emotion for him. We’ll get him back to normal. We’ve got great doctors, great trainers. We talked about it every timeout, ‘Get Kevin home.'”
This was the first time Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski had met in the regional finals since that 1992 classic that ended with Christian Laettner’s improbable buzzer-beater, a game now considered one of the best in NCAA tournament history.
This game will be remembered, too, but for a very different — and much more somber — reason.
With 6:33 left in the first half, Ware, a sophomore who has played a key role in Louisville’s 14-game winning streak, jumped to try and block Tyler Thornton’s 3-point shot. When he landed, his right leg snapped midway between his ankle and knee, the bone skewing almost at a right angle. Ware dropped to the floor right in front of the Louisville bench and, almost in unison, his teammates turned away in horror. Thornton grimaced, putting his hand to his mouth as he turned around.
Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear fell to the floor and Behanan looked as if he was going to be sick on the court, kneeling on his hands and feet. Luke Hancock patted Ware’s chest as doctors worked on the sophomore and Smith walked away, pulling his jersey over his eyes.
Pitino had tears in his eyes as he tried to console his players. Dieng draped an arm around the shoulders of Smith, who repeatedly wiped at his eyes and shook his head. The Cardinals gathered at halfcourt to try and regroup before Pitino called them over to the sideline, saying Ware wanted to talk to them before he left.
News of the injury dominated social media. Joe Theismann whose NFL career ended with a horrific broken leg, said on Twitter, “Watching Duke/ Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware.”
Fans chanted “Kevin! Kevin” as Ware was loaded onto the stretcher, and Pitino wiped away tears again as Ware was wheeled off the court.
The Cardinals struggled to put the horrific injury behind them, missing four of their next five shots along with two free throws after play resumed. They regrouped after a timeout, with Smith’s finger roll sparking a 12-6 run to finish the half that gave them a 35-32 lead.
Smith picked up where he left off at the start of the second half, making all three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt to give Louisville a 38-32 lead, its largest of the game to that point.
But just as he did against Michigan State, Duke star Seth Curry got hot after halftime, making two 3s in the first three minutes. Mason Plumlee dunked to tie the game at 42.
That, however, was all Louisville needed. Clawing for every rebound, diving on the floor for loose balls and cranking the intensity up even higher on their ferocious defense, the Cardinals were not going to lose.
And everyone, Duke included, knew it.
Smith made a layup, Siva made a nice jumper at the top of the key and then followed with a layup. Just like that, the Cardinals were off on a 20-4 run that sealed the victory.
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