Louisville coach Rick Pitino found himself in an awful predicament Saturday at the Final Four.
The top-seeded Cardinals trailed by double digits in the second half and three of his five starters were flashing the frosty shooting touch of icebergs. Kevin Ware, the team’s Energizer Bunny off the bench, could only cheer because of a broken leg suffered in last week’s Elite Eight victory over Duke.
So Pitino turned the game over to his “zone busters,” a pair of reserve guards who delivered with uncanny precision down the stretch to salvage a 72-68 victory over scrappy Wichita State. They also salvaged Louisville’s national title hopes at the Georgia Dome.
Luke Hancock, a transfer from George Mason, erupted for 14 second-half points. Tim Henderson, a walk-on who rarely plays, matched his career high with six points and could not have timed them any better.
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Henderson’s back-to-back 3-pointers helped cut Wichita State’s largest lead of the game, 47-35, in half heading into the final 12 minutes. Hancock’s second-half barrage, along with his ability to take away Wichita State’s last meaningful possession on a held-ball call with 6 seconds remaining, proved pivotal in lifting the Cardinals (34-5) into Monday’s national championship game against Michigan, a 61-56 winner over Syracuse in Saturday’s second game.
Mix in the 4 of 4 shooting by fellow reserve Montrezl Harrell and the Cardinals’ three biggest bench contributors combined to hit 12 of 16 shots on a night when the Louisville bench outscored the Wichita State reserves 34-9. And on a night when Louisville starters Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Wayne Blackshear managed to make just 1 of 1 shots between them, with Dieng and Blackshear going scoreless.
“We had to win this game with our second unit,” Pitino said. “The reason our starters played poorly is because Wichita State is that good. I don’t think we could face a basketball team any better than Wichita State. We’re really happy to be playing in the final game.”
Louisville got there because Hancock, who finished with 20 points, helped finish the rally that Henderson started at a time when Wichita State (30-9) had several of the favored Cardinals sweating.
“When we went down 12, I was like, ‘Man.’ I was actually waiting for our run … and I knew it wasn’t my night,” said guard Russ Smith, who finished with a team-high 21 points but struggled from both the field (6 of 17) and the foul line (4 of 11). “Then, it happened. Luke exploded. That’s what I was waiting for. And it just kept going and going.”
Hancock wound up making 6 of 9 shots, including 3 of 5 from behind the arc, to spur the rally. Hancock had 13 of his 14 second-half points in the final 11:33, including a 3-pointer at the 6:30 mark that gave the Cardinals a 56-55 lead — their first of the second half.
When Wichita State clawed back to tie matters at 60-60, behind the steallar play of forward Cleanthony Early (24 points, 10 rebounds), Hancock delivered a 3-pointer and a layup on consecutive possessions to stretch the lead to 67-62 with 1:16 remaining.
“You try to have confidence shooting the ball. I just shot it when I was open,” Hancock said.
Hancock’s biggest play of the night actually came on defense, when he followed his own missed free throw by tying up Wichita State’s Ron Baker with 6 seconds remaining. The whistle came too quickly, in the estimation of Shockers’ players, and the possession arrow denied Wichita State a possession while trying to erase a 72-69 deficit.
“I thought the ball was loose before the whistle was blown,” said Baker, who tapped it to teammate Malcolm Armstead but saw the ball awarded to Louisville. “But they already called jump ball, so … “
So the Cardinals made a game-clinching free throw and escaped to play for the school’s third national championship. Louisville won its 15th consecutive game, largely on the backs of Hancock and Henderson.
Of the two, Pitino expressed bigger surprise with Henderson, a walk-on who grew up in Louisville and had scored in only five of the team’s first 37 games. Yet he started the second-half rally with his momentum-turning treys, before handing over the rest of the task to Hancock.
Asked about Henderson, Pitino said: “I was shocked. Just that he had the gumption to take them, then make them, on this stage. That shows incredible fortitude for a young man that hasn’t played any minutes, to go in and do that.”
Eventually, Louisville’s zone-busting reserves bailed out Pitino on a night when his starters could not.