ATLANTA (WDRB) – The world wondered if Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was speaking the truth when he said that Tim Henderson would get many of the minutes that Kevin Ware played before he broke his leg.
Would Henderson really play 17 minutes, the way Ware had been playing? He had barely played 17 minutes since the first of the year.
Or would Pitino spread the minutes between Henderson, Luke Hancock and others on his bench?
Now we know: Hancock and Henderson can handle the workload.
They handled it Saturday night, pulling Louisville back from a 12-point, second-half hole as the Cardinals rallied to overcome Wichita State, 72-68, in the first national semifinal at the Georgia Dome. The Cards will play either Michigan or Syracuse Monday night while trying to earn the school's third national title.
Henderson had scored three points for the Cards in the entire Big East season. He scored six points in 42 seconds to ignite the comeback after the Cards trailed 47-35 with about 13 minutes to play.
He made one three-pointer from the right corner, not far from where Ware was sitting in a wheelchair with his broken leg. And if you thought that was a fluke, think again. Henderson made another three from nearly the same spot to cut the lead to 47-41.
"That got them back in the game," analyst Charles Barkley said.
Now the Cardinals' comeback was on. For the first time this season the Cardinals won when they were tied with five minutes to play.
Hancock, Chane Behanan and Russ Smith pulled Louisville to the finish line. Hancock scored 20 points, 14 of them in the second half. On a night when the Cardinals kept launching three-point shots, Hancock made three of five.
And Smith was Smith – occasionally out of control but indispensable at winning time. Smith finished with 21 points. Behanan roared to the glass for 10 points and nine rebounds.
"We play (Hancock) with our second unit, but he's not a second-unit guy," Pitino said. "The bench won the game for us tonight. I kept telling the guys this is the Georgetown game. We're going to make a run."
The first half was a sneak preview of what kind of tug-of-war this game would be. This is how the Cardinals started this game: Turnover, turnover, two missed free throws, missed three-point shot, two missed free throws, missed three-point, missed jump shot.
That is a prescription to find yourself behind 8-0 – and that is where the Cardinals were, trailing the Shockers by eight.
They steadied themselves and stopped throwing the basketball to Marietta, pushing to a 13-10 lead. But they kept shooting three-point shots, and except for Russ Smith they kept missing them.
At halftime, Louisville trailed, 26-25. Surprising? Sure. But maybe it should not have been surprising. Remember that Wichita State handled Pittsburgh, knocked off top seed Gonzaga and dominated Ohio State while eliminating the Buckeyes. Wichita State adopted the motivational phrase "Play Angry," but "Play Without Fear."
"The noose is getting tighter," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall told his players in a halftime motivational pep talk that was televised.
The most puzzling statistic of all was this: Four Louisville starters – Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng, Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan – combined for two points. As a group, they were averaging 34 points in Louisville's first four NCAA Tournament victories.
Dieng took one shot in the first half. So did Blackshear. So did Behanan. Strange. Very strange.
Here was another strange statistic: Of Louisville's 20 field-goal attempts in the first half, 13 were three-point shots. Rick Pitino has preached the same message since November: His team is not a good three-point shooting team. In fact, the Cardinals are barely an average three-point shooting team.
They needed to make a correction. And they did -- thanks to Tim Henderson and Luke Hancock.