Kevin Ware's courage, strength after horrific leg injury inspires Louisville to Final Four

INDIANAPOLIS – Chane Behanan said he cannot remember the last time he cried, but he was crying now.

The Louisville power forward's broad shoulders heaved as he sobbed. Teammate Russ Smith wept openly as well. Assistant coach Wyking Jones bolted off the bench, hands on his head, in horror. Head coach Rick Pitino wiped away tears. Luke Hancock was the only Cardinals player who could bear to be near the awful sight in front of the team's bench, coming to the side of his fallen teammate. 

A sudden pall fell over Lucas Oil Stadium. An electric NCAA tournament atmosphere turned into a trauma scene. 

Louisville players talk to guard Kevin Ware after his compound fracture. (AP)
Louisville players talk to guard Kevin Ware after his compound fracture. (AP)

Guard Kevin Ware lay on the hardwood with his right leg mangled. After challenging a 3-point shot by Duke's Tyler Thornton in the first half of the Midwest regional, Ware landed awkwardly and gruesomely broke his tibia. It was a compound fracture, bone protruding far through the skin, which Ware looked down and saw. It was the ugliest thing most anyone in the gym had ever seen in person on a basketball court. 

The snap of the leg was so loud that Smith heard it.

"It was really hard for me to pull myself together," Smith said, "because I didn't ever think in a million years I would see something like that."

The sight of the bone was unreal but unmistakable.

"Literally out," Behanan said. "I saw white."

It was that graphic, that awful, and because of the raised court it was at virtual eye level for everyone on the bench. Athletic trainer Fred Hina jumped up to comfort Ware and cover the injury with a towel, then started emergency first aid. 

"It is probably one of the more gruesome things you'll witness," said Hina, comparing it to compound leg fractures suffered by football players Joe Theismann and Tim Krumrie.

[Slideshow: Players, coaches react to Kevin Ware's gruesome injury]

Yet in the midst of his agony, Ware did the most remarkable thing. Courageously, selflessly, he thought of his teammates. 

The stoic, soft-spoken sophomore from outside Atlanta told coach Rick Pitino over and over, "Just win the game. I'm OK. Just win the game."

Pitino urgently called his grief-stricken players over to listen to Ware. As they closed in around him, the coach placed a hand on Ware's right arm. Peyton Siva held Ware's right hand. Wayne Blackshear held his left.

Ware looked up at his teammates and said it five more times.

"Just win the game. I'm OK. Just win the game."

[Also: Sports world reacts to Ware's injury]

The Cardinals won the game. They dominated Duke in the second half, pulling away for an 85-63 victory and their second-straight Final Four trip.

They did it for Kevin – Behanan slipped into Ware's No. 5 jersey on the sideline in the game's final minute, and Pitino led the crowd of 34,657 in a chant of "Kev-in! Kev-in! Kev-in!" after receiving the regional championship trophy. 

But they didn't just do it for Kevin. They did it because of Kevin.

"He just carried us through with what he said," Pitino said.

As Ware was being put on a stretcher and taken out, point guard Peyton Siva called his teammates together on the floor and led a prayer. He led another prayer at halftime. But Siva said it was Ware's words that mattered most. 

"I don't know how he did it," Siva said. "I don't know how he had the strength to do it. … Everybody on the team just wanted to step up for him." 

Ware's message to focus on the game and not on him calmed his teammates. It allowed them to focus. It forced the ghastly image to the back of their minds and put basketball in the forefront.

And after Ware was transported to nearby Methodist Hospital, it really left Louisville with no choice. It had to win the game.

Leading by three at halftime, Pitino told his team, "If we don't get him home to Atlanta (for the Final Four), it wasn't worth playing this season."

Duke was not going to make it easy on the Cardinals. But Louisville was not going to be denied.

Tied at 42 and with stars Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng playing through foul trouble, the Cardinals locked in and took over. They went on a 17-2 run to seize control of the game, with Siva, Dieng and Smith making big play after big play. They simply demoralized Duke, ripping the game away from the Blue Devils in an emphatic testament to collective will and character.

"They were able to pull themselves back in, focus and play," Hina said. "Pretty special bunch of kids."

Said backup center Stephan Van Treese: "It shows how much heart we have."

After accepting the trophy and celebrating and chanting Ware's name, the Cardinals declined to cut down the Lucas Oil nets – same as they did after winning the Big East tournament. Pitino stressed that his team is not trying to make any kind of statement, but it's clear that only one set of nets will be worth cutting – the ones in the Georgia Dome. Louisville will head to the Final Four as the team to beat, but it now has a major absence to deal with in the backcourt.

[Also: Inspired Kevin Ware request sparks Louisville to win]

But basketball was far from the minds of the Cardinals on Sunday night. By the time they returned to the locker room, some of the helium had escaped the joy balloon.

The mood was muted as reality sunk in: a teammate was missing.

"I've never been so happy," assistant coach Kevin Keatts said. "And so sad."

"It's very bittersweet," Behanan said.

Louisville players huddle as guard Kevin Ware is treated for his injury. (AP)
Louisville players huddle as guard Kevin Ware is treated for his injury. (AP)

Louisville released a statement late Sunday night saying Ware had "successful surgery" to repair his right tibia. Ware had the bone reset, the wound from the injury closed and a rod inserted in his right tibia during approximately two hours of surgery. He'll remain in Indianapolis until at least Tuesday, when he hopes to return to Louisville.

Ware is hoping to join the Cardinals in Atlanta for the Final Four. A timetable has not been set on his return to basketball competition.

Behanan is Ware's best friend on the team, which is why he squeezed his 250-pound body into the 175-pound Ware's jersey late in the game to pay tribute.

"Kevin is like a brother to me," Behanan said. "We're closest of everyone on the team. We're always together. We bonded right away.

"It just hurt me."

[Also: From underdogs to inspirational stories, this Final Four has everything]

After Louisville finished its media obligations, the team packed up and prepared to bus south two hours on Interstate 65 back to campus. But not Pitino.

He was staying in Indianapolis, along with his son Richard and equipment manager Vinny Tatum. Pitino planned to visit Ware on Sunday night in the hospital, and again Monday morning.

Pitino had something to show his injured guard when he saw him: the Midwest Regional trophy, spoils of a victory Louisville could not have won without Kevin Ware's courage and grace amid terrible pain.

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