Once top-seeded Louisville was on the verge of finishing off Duke on Sunday afternoon to clinch its second Final Four bid in the past two seasons, forward Chane Behanan stripped off his own jersey and donned the No. 5 of teammate Kevin Ware.
It was a fitting gesture for the player who inspired the Cardinals not to let their championship dreams go to waste on his behalf.
As he was lying in front of the Louisville bench in the first half with his right leg broken so badly that the bone was protruding from the skin, Ware called his teammates over and told them not to worry about him and to go win the game. The top-seeded Cardinals did just as he asked, breaking open a three-point game at halftime and pulling away from second-seeded Duke for an 85-63 rout.
Ware's injury was on the minds of his teammates throughout their game-changing 24-8 blitz midway through the second half. Since Ware is an Atlanta native and that is the host city for the Final Four, coach Rick Pitino said Louisville players and coaches reminded one-another during every timeout that the goal was to bring Ware home.
"We won this for him," Pitino told CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. "We're all choked up with emotion for him. We wanted to get back to Atlanta."
It was two of Louisville's other guards who were most responsible for the Cardinals turning a 35-32 halftime lead into a rout. Seniors Russ Smith and Peyton Siva torched Duke off the dribble via the pick and roll the entire game, beating their defenders easily and then drawing fouls on late-arriving Duke big men around the rim.
Smith, maybe the best player in the tournament so far, finished with 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting and 9-of-12 from the free throw line. Siva delivered 16 points, four assists and no turnovers, orchestrating the Louisville attack brilliantly.
Any chance Duke had of launching a comeback was short-circuited by Louisville's stingy defense.
A combination of Smith, Siva and the other Louisville guards blanketed Duke sharpshooter Seth Curry, limiting him to 12 points on 3 of 9 shooting in his final college game. Gorgui Dieng's rebounding and ability to protect the rim kept the Blue Devils from getting much easy around the rim either.
At the time of Ware's injury, the outcome of the game seemed to hinge on whether the rest of his team could refocus or not.
The other Louisville players on the court had crumpled to the ground and hid their tear-stained eyes in their hands or jerseys to keep from looking at Ware. Players on the Cardinals bench had recoiled in horror. Even Pitino himself was dabbing at his eyes and wiping away his tears.
That Louisville was able to bounce back is good news not only for the Cardinals but for college basketball as a whole.
Louisville has been the best team in the sport the past two months, winning 17 of 18 with the only loss coming in five overtimes to Notre Dame in mid-February. The Cardinals have won their four NCAA tournament games in the toughest region by an average of nearly 22 points.
It would have been a shame for all that to come to an end because Louisville was too shaken to respond to Ware's injury, but the Cardinals showed the toughness and fortitude to regroup and move on to Atlanta.
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