INDIANAPOLIS – 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 (30-6) on Sunday afternoon.
In the final seconds, Chane Behanan put Ware’s jersey on and stood at the end of the Louisville bench, screaming. Cardinals fans chanted “Kevin Ware!”
“We won this for him,” coach Rick Pitino said.
Ware played his high-school ball in Georgia, and the Final Four is in Atlanta, just adding to the emotion for the victorious Cardinals.
“We talked about it every timeout, ‘Get Kevin home,’ ” Pitino said.
Mason Plumlee led Duke with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Seth Curry added 12, all in the second half.
This was the first time Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski 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 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.
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 (33-5) 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.
“Basically, the bone popped out of the skin. It broke in two spots,” Pitino said. “Remember, the bone is 6 inches out of his leg, and all he’s yelling is ‘Win the game, win the game.’ I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Play resumed about 10 minutes later, but it was clear the Cardinals’ minds were elsewhere. They missed four of their next five shots – along with two free-throw attempts – and were uncharacteristically sloppy. But 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.
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.
Smith, the most outstanding player of the Midwest Region, made a layup. Peyton Siva had 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.