It’s not as though Louisville needed any incentive to beat Duke in the Midwest Regional Final last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, but it received one with 6:33 left in the opening half when sophomore reserve shooting guard Kevin Ware tried to block Tyler Thornton’s three-point attempt, which he canned and trimmed the Cardinals’ lead to one point.
Ware missed the block and when he landed near the Louisville bench, came down awkwardly and sustained a gruesome compound fracture of the lower right leg.
So bad was the injury that the game was delayed about nine minutes, and as Ware lay flat on his back several Cardinal players openly wept, as did Head Coach Rick Pitino.
“We did this for him,’’ said Pitino, who also led Kentucky to the national title in 1996. “At every time out we said win it for him.”
But it was Ware, who played his high school ball in Atlanta, and scored three points with one rebound and one steal in five minutes, who exhibited extreme courage in the face of extraordinary circumstances.
“Just go win this game for me,’’ said Ware, the Bronx, New York native, as he was being attended to by the medical staff. “Just go win this game. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Just go win this game.”
When the contest resumed, Louisville closed out the half with a three-point lead, and then outscored the No. 2 seeded Blue Devils by 19 points in the second half, and pulled away for an 85-63 victory.
Now the Cardinals will face No. 9 Wichita State, which held off No. 2 Ohio State in the West Regional Final, 70-66, in one national semifinal at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
In the other semifinal it will be No. 4 Syracuse, which routed No. 3 Marquette in the East Regional Final, 55-39 against No. 4 Michigan, which blasted No. 3 Florida, 79-59, in the South Regional Final.
Nothing is guaranteed, but the manner in which the Cardinals, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament have ripped four teams by an average margin of nearly 22 points would give any coach pause.
Louisville (33-5) is a tough out because it plays a pressing, full-court style of defense with a lightning-quick backcourt that includes junior shooting guard Russ Smith (game-high 23 points) and senior point guard Peyton Siva (16 points with four assists) swarming.
If the Cardinals force a turnover, (Duke had 13), it’s an easy hoop the other way. On missed shots, Louisville races up the floor and finds an open man, or simply dumps the ball inside to junior center Gorgui Dieng (14 points with 11 rebounds and four blocks).
Louisville, which shot 52.7 percent (29 of 55) from the floor, but made two of 13 from the three-point arc, led 9-8 with 15:03 left in the opening half, and 19-17 with 7:41 showing.
Duke (30-6), which converted 19 of 52 for 36.5 percent from the field, pulled ahead 26-23 with 3:45 left, but the Cardinals outscored the Blue Devils 12-6 to close out the half.
Louisville led 49-42 after Siva’s driving layup and 13:32 left, and it blossomed to 55-44 on Siva’s sharp pass to Dieng who put in a layup with 11:32 remaining.
The Cardinals then ripped off a 9-4 spurt and led 64-48 with 7:27 left, and pulled in front 76-61 with 2:31 left, before finishing with a 9-2 burst.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.