Louisville loses a player but wins a regional

At halftime, Louisville coach Rick Pitino sought to steady his shaken players. “We had to gather ourselves. We could not lose this game – for him.”

An overwhelming second half tore open a close game – tied at 42, Louisville outscored Duke 15-2 – and booked the Cardinals’ passage to the Georgia Dome, and afterward they made sure Ware, who’d been taken to Methodist Hospital, was remembered. Forward Chane Behanan celebrated wearing Ware’s No. 5 jersey, and as Louisville accepted its trophy the thousands of red-clad fans in Lucas Oil Stadium chanted, “Kev-in! Kev-in!”

The bracket for Atlanta’s fourth Final Four was filled Sunday, and the Dome contestants will be Wichita State, a brawny mid-major from the Missouri Valley Conference; Syracuse and Michigan, No. 4 seeds from bigger leagues who fought off late-season wobbles to steady in the Big Dance, and the absolute best team in the country. Just ask Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a loser for only the second time in 13 Elite Eight appearances.

“We would have had to play great to beat them, and we were playing pretty good for while,” Krzyzewski said. “And then ‘Boom.’ I’ve been doing this a long time, and they’re really good.”

Louisville’s unrelenting defense limited one of the nation’s finest offensive teams to 19 baskets over 40 minutes. Seth Curry, who’d scored 29 points in the Devils’ victory over Michigan State on Friday, didn’t score in the first half. The gifted freshman Rasheed Sulaimon didn’t score until five minutes remained.

Krzyzewski: “They played a great game. They play so hard. We tried to match them. We couldn’t match them.”

And this was on a day when the Cardinals had to fight off not just Duke but abject horror. With 6:44 left in the first half, Ware ran at Tyler Thornton, who was hoisting a 3-pointer from the right wing. Ware flew past Thornton and landed on the apron of the raised court, whereupon he crumpled.

Said Louisville guard Russ Smith, who scored 23 points and was named the region’s most outstanding player: “When he landed, I heard (Ware’s leg break). Then I saw what happened come out (a protruding bone), and I just fell.”

Pitino: “I was going to help (Ware) up, and then I saw what it was and I literally almost threw up. I tried to get a towel over it, but by then all our players saw it.”

Smith walked around the court, tears rolling down his cheeks. Behanan, Ware’s best friend among Cardinals, knelt and pressed his forehead to floorboards. Along press row, CBS analyst Clark Kellogg sat before his monitor and covered his face with his hands.

Pitino: “It was a gruesome sight. Like nothing I’ve ever witnessed … But I don’t think we could have gone in that locker room with a loss after seeing that.”

Pitino said he planned to stay the night and see Ware after he emerged from surgery and again Monday morning. The Cardinals expect Ware to be with them in the Georgia Dome, albeit on crutches.

Louisville will meet Wichita State, an upstart in name only, in Saturday’s first semifinal, but the talent gap seems too great for the Shockers to override. Michigan, which left Florida in its dust in Sunday’s South Regional final, will try to make Syracuse play faster than it wants in the second semi, but the Orange zone tends to slow everyone.

Except Louisville. The Cardinals have faced Syracuse three times this season, losing the first and winning the next two. The third meeting came in the Big East title game, and it served to slingshot Louisville into the NCAA tournament. Down by 16 points inside the final 10 minutes, the Cards won by 17.

Louisville scored 56 points in that second half against the Orange, and the Cardinals mustered 50 in the second half against Duke in a regional final Krzyzewski had called, “Almost like a national championship game.” The guess here is that it was: Of the teams still standing, only Duke stood a chance against Louisville, and Duke was smashed flat. And now the Cardinals fly south with even a deeper sense of purpose.

“We would not have been able to win this game if not for Kevin Ware saying 12 times, ‘I’ll be fine. Win the game,’ ” Pitino said. “He’s a brave young man … We’re disappointed for Kevin, but we’re getting him home to Atlanta.”

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