Louisville's Kevin Ware sits on the bench at the court before the first half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game against Wichita State, Saturday, April 6, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Saturday, April 06, 2013 11:39 pm
Ware watches Cardinals' Final Four win from bench
By CHARLES ODUMAP Sports Writer
As he watched the way Louisville's backups came through to fill the void following his season-ending injury last week, Ware just had to stand and cheer. He even managed to pull himself up to the elevated court and join a late timeout during Saturday's Final Four semifinal against Wichita State.
"I wasn't thinking," Ware said. "I was just trying to get in the huddle to get around the team. I was just telling the guys (that) defense is going to win this game."
It helped that their leader off the bench, Luke Hancock, scored 20 points and another backup, Tim Henderson, added two 3-pointers.
Ware, who only six days ago had surgery to repair a gruesome compound fracture in his right leg, was on crutches as he followed his teammates onto the court.
He remained seated for most of the game as Louisville trailed the Shockers.
Louisville was behind 47-35 midway through the second half. Ware clapped and cheered as the Cardinals rallied, finally taking the lead with 6:30 remaining on a 3-pointer by Hancock.
Then, with the game tied 58-all with about 5 minutes to go, Ware stood and clapped and remained on his feet until the Cardinals took a 60-58 lead. Putting his weight on his good left leg, the sophomore guard stood again, using the elevated court for support, in the closing minutes of Louisville's 72-68 win.
"The bench won the game for us tonight," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "Unbelievable display."
Ware stood again and smiled as Russ Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points, sank two free throws with 4.9 seconds remaining.
Smith said Louisville's players needed time to recover from the shock of seeing the horrific injury to Ware.
"When something like that happens, it's really devastating emotionally," Smith said. "When that happens, it really bothers you physically and mentally. I think the guys did a great job of stepping up and blocking out all the negativity and looking at the positive side that Ware's OK."
As the game ended, Ware said he convinced a security guard to allow his father, Kevin Ware Sr., through the crowd. The two embraced in a long hug. Ware said he hadn't seen his father, who lives in New York, "in a year or two."
The Cardinals will face Michigan for the national title Monday night after the Wolverines beat Syracuse 61-56 in the other semifinal.
Ware was missed by his Louisville teammates, who without him lacked the depth at guard to effectively press Wichita State for the whole game. The Cardinals had just enough to win without him.
There was support for Ware from fans and his teammates at the Georgia Dome.
Fans loudly cheered for Ware before the game as the guard, on crutches and surrounded by a crowd of photographers, followed his teammates onto the floor. He was positioned in a chair at the end of the bench, with his injured leg resting on a stack of towels atop another chair.
He was wearing his No. 5 jersey, red sneakers and red and black camouflage shorts.
"I knew I was going to wear my jersey tonight just to show them I was there for them," Ware said.
The top-seeded Cardinals' backcourt was too thin without Ware, failing to dictate the pace on either end of the floor.
With Ware watching from beside the Louisville bench, Wichita State had four turnovers early in the game and didn't give the ball away again for about 26 minutes - well past the midpoint of the second half. The Shockers finished with 11 turnovers.
That was not the routine for Louisville, which with Ware healthy ranked second in the nation in turnover margin while forcing almost 19 giveaways per game.
Ware signed with Louisville from Rockdale County High School, about 30 miles east of Atlanta.
Throughout much of a back-and-forth first half, Ware watched the game passively. Until the final minutes, he was unable to join the Cardinals during timeouts, with the team huddled on the raised court above the bench.
Ware's right tibia snapped and broke through his skin in last Sunday's Midwest Regional victory over Duke. The brutal injury ended his postseason as a player but didn't end his role as a teammate. Before he was taken off the court that evening, he told the shocked Louisville players to "win this game."
Louisville players paid tribute to Ware before their national semifinal, wearing T-shirts over their jerseys in pregame warmups with the words "Ri5e to the Occasion." Louisville's pep band also wore the T-shirts.
A Louisville fan held a sign reading "Wa5e them out!" Another fan held up a sign with Ware's photo and the promise "I'll be back." Another sign: "Win for Ware."
"It was great," Ware said. "I appreciate all the support. I just want to say thank you to all the people who have been supporting me."
Ware had surgery Sunday night, was released two days later and on Wednesday flew with the team to Atlanta.
Ware was boosted by strong support from fans and celebrities. He said he heard from some of his idols, including Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Charles Barkley. Even first lady Michelle Obama and the Rev. Jesse Jackson sent messages of support.
The surgery, travel and sudden celebrity combined to leave the sophomore drained by the time he reached Atlanta. Ware was so exhausted he fell asleep at the team's dinner table Thursday night. That convinced team officials to decide he needed a full day of rest Friday so he would be able to attend Saturday's game.