INDIANAPOLIS – Crying and shaken by the sight of Kevin Ware writhing on the court, his right leg splintered, Rick Pitino and his Louisville players had no idea how they were going to pull it together with a half still left to play and a Final Four berth on the line.
Ware showed them the way.
I dont think we could have gathered ourselves – I know I couldnt have – if Kevin didnt say over and over again, Just go win the game, Pitino said. I dont think we could have gone in the locker room with a loss after seeing that. We had to gather ourselves. We couldnt lose this game for him.
We just couldnt.
With Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng leading the way, the Cardinals shook off their grief early in the second half, erupting for a 13-2 run that Duke was powerless to answer. The 85-63 victory clinched a second straight trip to the Final Four for the top-seeded Cardinals, who are determined to win it all for Ware, a New York City native who moved to the Atlanta area for high school.
The Cardinals (33-5) will play Wichita State in the national semifinals Saturday. The ninth-seeded Shockers (30-8) upset Ohio State 70-66 on Saturday night.
As the final seconds ticked down, Wares best friend on the team, Chane Behanan, put on the guards No. 5 jersey and stood at the end of the bench, screaming. Cardinals fans chanted Kevin Ware! Kevin Ware!
We talked about it every timeout, Get Kevin home, Pitino said.
Smith finished with 23 points and earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the Midwest Region. Siva added 16 while Dieng had 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Mason Plumlee had 17 points and 12 rebounds for Duke. But the Blue Devils (30-6) couldnt overcome a poor start by Seth Curry, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half, or their foul trouble.
I thought we had a chance there, and then, boom, coach Mike Krzyzewski said. Thats what they do to teams. They can boom you.
With 6:33 left in the first half, Ware jumped to try to block Tyler Thorntons three-point shot. When he landed, Wares right leg snapped midway between his ankle and knee, the bone skewing almost at a right angle. Ware dropped to the floor right in front of the Louisville bench and, almost in unison, his teammates turned away in horror.
I heard it and then I seen what happened, (the bone) come out, Smith said. I immediately just, like, fell. I almost didnt feel nothing.
Pitino went to help Ware up and then saw the leg, which broke in two places.
I literally almost threw up, Pitino said, his voice catching. Then I just wanted to get a towel to get it over that. But all the players came over and saw it.
Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear fell to the floor and Behanan looked as if he was going to be sick on the court, kneeling on his hands and feet. Luke Hancock patted Wares chest as doctors worked on the sophomore and Smith walked away, pulling his jersey over his eyes. The arena was silent, and several fans wept and bowed their heads.
It was really hard for me to pull myself together, Smith said. I didnt ever think in a million years I would ever see something like that. And that it happened, especially, to a guy like Kevin Ware, I was completely devastated.
As the Cardinals (33-5) gathered at halfcourt to try and regroup before play resumed, Pitino called them over to the sideline, saying Ware wanted to talk to them before he left.
Basically, the bone popped out of the skin. It broke in two spots, Pitino said. Remember the bone is six inches out of his leg, and all hes yelling is, Win the game, win the game. Ive never seen anything like that.
Pitino wiped away tears as Ware, whom Smith described as the Cardinals little brother, was wheeled off the court. He underwent surgery at nearby Methodist Hospital.
When play resumed, it was clear the Cardinals minds were elsewhere. They missed four of their next five shots along with two free throws and were uncharacteristically sloppy. But they regrouped after a timeout, with Smiths finger roll sparking a 12-6 run to finish the half that gave them a 35-32 lead.
Smith picked up where he left off at the start of the second half, making all three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt to give Louisville a 38-32 lead, its largest of the game to that point.
Curry got hot after halftime, making two threes in the first three minutes. A Plumlee dunk tied the game at 42.
That, however, was all Louisville needed.
Clawing for every rebound, diving on the floor for loose balls and cranking the intensity up even higher on their ferocious defense, the Cardinals were not going to lose.
And everyone, Duke included, knew it.
We got beat by a better team, Krzyzewski said.