ATLANTA — For nearly 30 minutes Saturday night Wichita State was the most aptly nicknamed of all the mid-majors.
The Shockers led No. 1 seed Louisville by a dozen. Not even the sight of fallen teammate Kevin Ware imploring the the Cardinals from alongside their bench seemed capable of providing Louisville the necessary spark. Everything was going the way of Missouri Valley Conference’s first Final Four entry since 1979.
But to judge Louisville too early is to forget what the Cardinals are all about. It’s not enough to withstand their bruising defense for three-fourths of a game. Survival depends upon minimizing the toll it exacts over the full 40 minutes. And that was more than Wichita State’s young backcourt could take as Louisville, a semifinal loser a year ago, wore down the Shockers in the Georgia Dome and rode Luke Hancock’s long-range shooting to a 72-68 victory and a berth into Monday night’s national championship game.
Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said Wichita State was as well-coached as any team Louisville faced all season. He wasn’t exaggerating. For the most part, Gregg Marshall’s Shockers dealt admirably with Louisville’s pressure and kept the Cards from feasting on turnovers until late.
But the effects of the grind became apparent down the stretch, no more so than when Hancock tied up Wichita freshman Ron Baker for a crucial jump ball off a long rebound with 6.3 seconds remaining. The possession arrow favored Louisville, and Russ Smith (21 points) made the needed free throw with 4.9 seconds left to give the Cardinals the coveted four-point cushion and secure their 15th straight victory.
Louisville hasn’t lost since that Feb. 9 at Notre Dame – in five overtimes.
“I was forced to dribble the ball because I lost my balance,” Baker said of the key tie-up. “I thought the ball was loose before the whistle was blown. I tapped it to Malcolm [Armstead]. They already called jump ball, so …”
“Down the stretch, we just were loose with the ball,” Armstead said. “We just didn’t take care of it. I can’t give you an explanation. It just happened.”
Key players on both sides were rendered ineffective.
Armstead, Wichita State’s senior backcourt leader, scored just two points, going 1 of 10 from the field. The inside work of 6-foot-8 junior Cleanthony Early (24 points, 10 rebounds) picked up the slack for his teammate.
On the Louisville side, center Gorgui Dieng was a non-factor, failing to score and battling foul trouble much of the second half. Hancock more than made up for the absence of Dieng’s 10 points per game.
A 6-6 junior reserve who averages 7.4, Hancock went off for 20 points – six of them in the final two minutes – and was 3 of 5 from behind the arc.
Louisville also got a lift from Tim Henderson, who came off the bench midway through the second half to nail two threes and reduce a 12-point deficit to six.
Unexpected? Henderson was 4 of 17 on threes all season up until that point.
“We just had to come out and execute on offense, especially in the second half,” Hancock said. “We didn’t really make a run until late just because Wichita State is such a good team.”
“We had to win it with our second unit, but he is not a second-unit player,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of Hancock. “He is probably the best offensive player we have.”
Despite the impressive array of opponents it victimized to reach Atlanta, few gave Wichita State much chance against the Cards (34-5). The skeptics included the oddsmakers, who installed the Shockers (30-9) as double-digit underdogs.
On the flip side, Louisville bore the weight of expectations after last season ended with a loss to eventual champion Kentucky in the national semifinals. The Cardinals had spoken all week of how the gruesome leg fracture Ware suffered on Easter Sunday had provided a positive by diverting attention away from their status as this year’s Final Four favorite.
Yet during the game’s opening minutes, Wichita State performed undaunted while Louisville looked the part of a skittish team. The Shockers shot out to an 8-0 lead with the help of four missed free throws by Smith, an 82.4 percent shooter from the line. The Cardinals countered by running off nine points, a surge fueled by three Wichita turnovers, two of them resulting from full-court pressure.
Wichita State took the punch but never buckled and hit the locker room leading, 26-25. Early had nine in the half, Smith 11.
As expected, there was little offensive artistry over the opening 20 minutes.
Wichita State shot 9 of 28 after opening 3 of 7. Seven turnovers factored in the Cardinals taking eight fewer shots (8 of 20). Smith’s ability to catch fire from behind the arc (3 of 5) played a major role in Louisville holding close over the final five minutes.
The Cardinals were barely tested in reaching the Final Four for the second straight year. They opened the tournament by blasting North Carolina A&T, 79-48, then put away Colorado State (82-56), Oregon (77-69) and Duke (85-63).
Wichita State’s run to Atlanta was even more impression given the quality of opposition. The Shockers ousted Pitt (73-55), No. 1 seed Gonzaga (76-70), La Salle (72-58) and Ohio State (70-66). The Buckeyes were looking to join Louisville in reaching the Final Four for a second straight year.