ATLANTA — Whether it was after winning the Big East tournament or advancing to the Final Four, Louisville has twice passed on the chance to cut down the nets to emphasize that only one set of nets are worth snipping.
The Cardinals' season-long goal is still within reach thanks to the heroics of a reserve guard who came up huge in the biggest game of his life.
Luke Hancock, a transfer from George Mason, scored 14 of his 20 points after halftime in Saturday's first national semifinal, enabling Louisville to rally from a 12-point second-half deficit against underdog Wichita State and escape with a 72-68 victory. The Cardinals will advance to face the winner of Saturday's second semifinal between Syracuse and Michigan.
[Slideshow: Game action from Final Four]
Hancock had a hand in every aspect of the comeback, burying a 3-pointer to give Louisville the lead with six minutes to go, knocking down another key three with two minutes to go to extend the advantage to five and scoring a driving layup on the next possession to keep Wichita State at bay. He also made the most crucial defensive play of the game, atoning for a missed free throw with eight seconds left by tying up Ron Baker and forcing a held ball that deprived Wichita State the chance to tie the game on its final possession.
"Luke's an excellent player and an excellent person," Louisville guard Peyton Siva said. "He didn't get named team captain for nothing before he even played a game with us. He showed his leadership out there tonight. ... Tonight he showed the world what he's
capable of doing."
Hancock's brilliance saved Louisville from a loss that would have been more devastating than last year's Final Four loss to rival Kentucky. Whereas the Cardinals entered that game knowing their season was a success just by making the Final Four, they arrived in Atlanta this week with the burden of higher expectations.
Louisville has now won 18 of 19 games since emerging from a late-January slump, challenging the prevailing notion that there isn't a dominant team in college basketball this season. In their first four NCAA tournament games, the Cardinals outclassed every team in maybe the toughest of the four regions, winning by an average of nearly 22 points.
Wichita State can take solace in providing a far greater challenge for Louisville than any previous foe, but that doesn't make the loss any easier to swallow.
The Shockers reached the Final Four for the first time since 1965 despite graduating their five leading scorers off last year's NCAA tournament team and spending much of the regular season playing in the shadow of Missouri Valley Conference rival Creighton. They had the chance to be the first team seeded ninth or higher to win a Final Four game, but they let it slip through their fingers.
"This one's especially hard because of the run we went on," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "This may be the most important basketball game that I'll ever coach. It's definitely the most important to the date and it's probably the most important that Wichita State's ever played in. It's tough because it's a group of young men in that locker room that you just grow to love."
It's a testament to Wichita State that Saturday's game was no rout. Forward Cleanthony Early scored a game-high 24 points, forward Carl Hall added 13 and the Shockers' stingy, packed-in defense kept Louisville from hurting them in the paint, putting a major scare into the pre-tournament favorites.
If Louisville felt fortunate to go into the locker room only trailing by one despite a lackluster, turnover-plagued first-half performance, the smiles of the Cardinals faded in the opening minutes of the second half. A 15-5 blitz by Wichita State capped by an Early 3-pointer extended the Shockers' lead to 47-35 with 13:40 remaining, inspiring a roar from those wearing yellow at the Georgia Dome and anxious looks from those in red.
The way the game was trending for Louisville was as big a concern as the score. Wichita State's array of ball handlers deftly attacked the full-court pressure without turning the ball over. The Shockers generated good looks in the paint off half-court sets as well. And guard Russ Smith, Louisville's primary source of offense up until that point, already had three fouls.
What changed for the Cardinals is they began to string together defensive stops and other sources of offense besides Smith emerged.
Reserve Tim Henderson, who was only playing because of Kevin Ware's season-ending broken leg, drained a pair of huge threes to cut the Wichita State lead in half. Chane Behanan knocked down some big free throws and scored a critical tie-breaking tip-in. And, of course, Hancock came alive, delivering the outside shooting Louisville so desperately needed with Wichita State determined to crowd the paint.
Hancock finished 6 0f 9 from the floor and 3 of 5 from behind the arc, a huge contribution for a kid who hadn't scored more than 10 points in any of Louisville's previous four NCAA tournament victories. His teammates clearly recognized his impact, mobbing him at mid-court once the final buzzer sounded and Louisville was safely in the title game.
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