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Louisville rallies past Wichita State for shot at title

The SportsXchange

ATLANTA -- No. 1 seed and tournament favorite Louisville was in trouble.

Wichita State was handling the Cardinals' trademark pressure. The Shockers wouldn't wilt. Until they did.

Louisville rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to knock off gritty Wichita State 72-68 in a Final Four thriller on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.

The Cardinals (34-5), winners of 15 straight, advance to face the Syracuse-Michigan winner on Monday in the national championship game.

But it was anything but easy.

Russ Smith led Louisville with 20 points, but sixth-man Luke Hancock was the star. Hancock added 19 points, including a corner 3-pointer that gave the Cardinals their first lead of the second half at 56-55 with 6:30 to play.

Hancock hit another 3-pointer from the left wing with two minutes left that put the Cardinals up five and ignited calls of "Luuuuuuuke" from the Cardinals faithful. The junior did most of his damage from outside but also found his way to the rim on two nifty drives that were a part of a 25-9 Louisville run that flipped the momentum to the Cardinals.

"Luke is tremendous," Smith said of his teammate. "If you saw him in practice, you wouldn't be surprised by his performance. He puts on a show every day in practice. His hard work paid off, especially on the biggest stage. I'm so happy he had the game of his life."

Cleanthony Early scored a game-high 24 points for ninth-seeded Wichita State (30-9). He hit a 3-pointer at the 13:34 mark of the second half to put the Shockers up 12. They were handling Louisville pressure efficiently. They were in control, and their crowd was on its feet singing boisterously.

Wichita State went 28 minutes without a turnover, but had six of its 11 during Louisville's closing run.

"Louisville gets credit for that," Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. "In the course of a 40-minute game against some of the best pressure you're going to see every time the ball is inbounded, we had 11 turnovers, so that's not bad. But I've got to call a different zone-pressure offense or man-press offense. We've got to execute it better and make our cuts harder."

Things started to swing in Louisville's favor when walk-on Tim Henderson hit two 3-pointers from the right wing. Henderson was playing in place of guard Kevin Ware, who suffered a gruesome leg injury in the Cardinals' win over Duke in the Elite Eight and been a major inspiration for Louisville.

"I just kept telling the guys we are going to make our own run," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who has a chance to become the first coach in history to lead two different schools to national championships. "It is about defense. The tempo is not ours. Give them their credit, but the bench won the game for us tonight. Unbelievable display."

A Hancock layup put Louisville up 67-62 with 1:16 to play. The Shockers climbed back within two twice in the final minute, but Hancock created a turnover on a held ball and Smith made a free throw to put Louisville up four with eight seconds left.

"This may be the most important basketball game I'll ever coach," Marshall said. "It's definitely the most important to date, and it's probably the most important that Wichita State's ever played in. It's tough because it's such a group of young men in that locker room that you just grow to love. They're fun to coach. They're tough as nails, tough as nails."

As time ticked down, Ware made his way on crutches down to the Louisville bench, sending a buzz through a packed and raucous Georgia Dome. Actor Will Ferrell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft were among the celebrities in attendance.

Whether it was the dome setting or nerves, both teams went through scoring droughts in a low-scoring, back-and-forth first half that was called tightly.

Wichita State scored the first eight points. Louisville didn't score until Smith made a breakaway layup at the 14:30 mark. The basket ignited a 9-0 run and got Louisville's leading scorer going.

Smith opened the game by missing four straight free throws, throwing up an airball from the corner and turning the ball over in traffic. He found his rhythm later in the half and hit three 3-pointers to help the Cardinals stay in a first half that featured eight lead changes.

Malcolm Armstead, who has carried the Shockers offensively in the tournament, also started slow. The senior missed all six of his shots in the first half and finished with just four points. He had averaged more than 15 in the Shockers' four tournament wins.

Early, Carl Hall and Ron Baker picked up the scoring slack, helping the Shockers take a 26-25 lead into halftime.

NOTES: Pitino is the first coach to take three different teams to the Final Four. ... Pitino also had a good day at the horse track, where his horse Goldencents won the Santa Anita Derby and will be one of the favorites at the Kentucky Derby. ... Wichita State is the first Missouri Valley Conference team to reach the Final Four since Indiana State in 1979. ... Louisville wore long-sleeved white T-shirts with "Ri5e to the Occasion" on the front and the No. 5 on the back in honor of injured guard Kevin Ware. ... Indiana coach Tom Crean, former UConn coach Jim Calhoun and former Louisville coach Denny Crum were all seated near each other.
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