Wichita State’s Carl Hall (22) and Louisville’s Russ Smith vie for a loose ball during the second half of an NCAA semifinal on Saturday in Atlanta.
ATLANTA — Luke Hancock came off the bench to score 20 points, walk-on Tim Henderson sparked a second-half rally with a pair of monster 3s and Louisville advanced to the NCAA title game Saturday night, escaping with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State.
As the final buzzer sounded, a Louisville player tossed the ball high into the air and injured Kevin Ware stood up, thrusting his arms above his head.
It was the 15th straight victory for the top-seeded Cardinals (34-5), who will play the winner of Syracuse-Michigan for the national title Monday night. It is the Cardinals’ first trip to the title game since they won it all in 1986.
Russ Smith led the Cardinals with 21 points, and Chane Behanan added 10.
Cleanthony Early had 24 for the ninth-seeded Shockers (30-9), who nearly pulled off their biggest upset of all. Wichita State had knocked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga and Ohio State on its way to its first Final Four since 1965, and it had a 12-point lead on the Cardinals with 13:35 to play. It was the largest deficit all tournament for the Cardinals, who seemed out of sorts with Ware on the bench, his broken right leg propped up on a chair.
But Louisville had come back to win five games after trailing by nine points or more already this year, including rallying from a 16-point deficit in the title game at the Big East tournament.
This one trumped them all.
Henderson, the walk-on who was forced into increased playing time because of Ware’s injury, made back-to-back 3s to spark a 21-8 run. While Hancock and Behanan were knocking down shots, Smith and Peyton Siva were turning up the heat on the Shockers.
After going more than 26 minutes without a turnover, Siva darted in to strip the ball away from Carl Hall. He fed Hancock, who drilled a 3 that gave Louisville a 56-55 lead, its first since the end of the first half.
Early would give the Shockers one more lead, converting a three-point play. But Siva scored and then Smith stole the ball and took it in for an easy layup that gave Louisville a 60-58 lead with 4:47 left. Louisville fans erupted, and even Ware was on his feet, throwing up his arms and clapping. The Cardinals extended the lead to 65-60 on a tip-in of a Smith miss and another 3 by Hancock.
Wichita State had one last chance, pulling within 68-66 on Early’s tip in with 22 seconds left. But the Shockers were forced to foul, and Smith and Hancock made their free throws to seal the victory.
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