Backup guard Tim Henderson unlikely hero as Louisville advances to NCAA title game

ATLANTA – Down 12 points with 13 minutes to play in the Final Four, Louisville needed to find a hero in a hurry.

The one who stepped forward was the least likely guy on the floor.

Walk-on Tim Henderson, who had to mount a letter-writing campaign in high school to even get Rick Pitino to consider taking him, somehow became Mr. Big Shot. Pressed into service after the horrific broken leg suffered last Sunday by Kevin Ware, Henderson swished a corner 3-pointer off a feed from Luke Hancock. Forty-two seconds later, Henderson swished another 3 from the same spot off a feed from Russ Smith.

Six points, his total for the game, in 42 seconds? Henderson hadn't scored six points in the last two months. A garbage-time 3 against Duke last week was his first basket since January.

Final Four stars don't get any more unlikely than Tim Henderson. This was straight Disney movie.

"It's amazing," Henderson said, looking a bit astonished to find so much media crowding around his locker.

The rally Henderson started, his teammates finished off. The overall No. 1 seed bounced off the ropes and back into the fight against underdog, No. 9 seed Wichita State, eventually wearing down the Shockers and eking out a 72-68 victory. It appears to be the largest second-half deficit overcome in a national semifinal in 12 years.

Luke Hancock was the star, scoring 20 points and making one clutch play after another down the stretch. But Henderson was the revelation, completing Ware's prophecy from earlier in the week.

When the injured guard met with the media Wednesday, he confidently declared that Henderson would step up and play well.

"Tim will come in and hit a couple 3s," Ware said then.

"Told ya!" Ware said triumphantly Saturday night in the Louisville locker room.

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Ware had a confidence that was not shared by many who had watched the Cardinals all season. Henderson came here four for 17 from the 3-point line, having not yet played 90 minutes on the entire season. He scored a total of three points during Big East play this season.

But Henderson was indeed ready when called upon to play 10 minutes – his longest outing since Jan. 28. Truth be told, this was a moment he'd been dreaming of and preparing for his entire life.

A Cardinal fan from the crib, the Louisvillian grew up loving the 2005 team that went to the Final Four. Playing at Christian Academy, a small, non-power program, the scholarship offers flowed in from … no one.

Henderson was probably going to play at Indiana University Southeast, a tiny NAIA program just across the Ohio River from Louisville in New Albany. But his dream was to play for the Cardinals.

Henderson wrote three or four letters to Pitino, expressing his desire to walk on. They didn't get him very far. But a Louisville video coordinator had seen him and thought he had a chance, so assistant coach Ralph Willard went to watch one of his games at Christian Academy.

That led to an invitation to play with the Cardinals in some open-gym situations at the school's practice facility. Henderson thought he played well in those, but still had no guarantee from Pitino.

Finally, in July of 2010, Pitino introduced Henderson to walk-on Elisha Justice.

"That's your roommate," Pitino told him.

"I guess I'm on the team," Henderson said, then quickly called his parents to share the news.

[Related: Cards' Luke Hancock defines clutch in final minutes of thriller]

Thus began three years of taking a whipping from Peyton Siva and Russ Smith in practice every day.

"Tim has to guard Russ every day in practice," Hancock said. "A lot of times it's not pretty."

Some speculated that Henderson's roster spot was a gift to his uncle, David Novak, who is the CEO of Yum! Brands – the naming sponsor for Louisville's 22,000-seat downtown arena. For most of three seasons, Henderson had done little to dispel that notion. There was often talk of Henderson knocking down flurries of shots in practice, but it never seemed to carry over to games.

Fact is, the junior hadn't made a single critical basket in his entire college career.

Until Saturday night, when he absolutely had to.

Pitino said all week Henderson would step up and absorb some of Ware's minutes, but the freshly minted Hall of Fame coach is prone to putting out misinformation before games. Popular wisdom was that Hancock would slide from small forward into the backcourt rather than risk playing Henderson extensively in the Final Four, of all places.

But Pitino was true to his word for once. Henderson gave Smith four minutes of rest and Siva six.

"It was going to be hard for Luke to adjust to the 'two' spot in this short an amount of time," Henderson said.

[Related: Rick Pitino wins on the hardwood, at the race track]

It seemed even harder to believe that Tim Henderson would be ready to play vital minutes. But he did, and in the process earned himself an improbable place in program lore.

"You're a Louisville legend," center Stephan Van Treese told Henderson.

His legendary night did not get off to an auspicious start. Henderson missed his first shot of the game, a first-half 3-pointer, coming up short.

But there was no hesitating in the second half. Even in the direst situation of Louisville's season, Hancock trusted Henderson with the pass and Henderson trusted himself with the shot.

It swished.

Next time down the court, Smith trusted Henderson with the pass and Henderson trusted himself even more with the shot.

It swished, too, and a 12-point deficit was cut in half. Louisville was back in it.

"I didn't know whether to yell or play defense," Henderson admitted.

He actually did both, letting out a scream and then scurrying to find his man.

"I know Tim had it in him," Siva said. "When he got in the game and hit that first 3, I was just ecstatic for him. Then the next one, hit it again. … I'm proud of him. He's put in the hard work all year. This was the time that he finally got to show it."

[Slideshow: Warm homecoming for Louisville's Kevin Ware ]

Pitino did not share his players' confidence in Henderson as a game-changer.

"The players said they weren't surprised about him making those back-to-back 3s," Pitino said. "They're being very kind. I was shocked. Not shocked that he made them, just that he had the gumption to take them, then take it again.

"That's pretty darn big on this stage. That shows incredible fortitude for a young man that hasn't played any minutes, to go in and do that. So I'm real proud of him."

Tim Henderson had to beg his way into a Cardinal uniform. But after two incredibly unlikely shots Saturday night, his name will be said with affection by Louisville fans for the rest of his life.

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