Tim Henderson's back-to-back threes ignited the rally that put Louisville in the NCAA final against Michigan.
ATLANTA – Louisville plays Michigan for the NCAA championship Monday night. But before I shift to questions about the Wolverines, there was another question that needed to be asked in the Cardinals' locker room after U of L's 72-68 victory over Wichita State:
How many points did Tim Henderson score in Big East conference play this season?
"Probably none," said Henderson's pal, Stephan Van Treese.
Ouch. And incorrect.
Would you like to take a shot, Wayne Blackshear?
"Six?" asked Blackshear.
Sorry. You're more optimistic than Van Treese, but equally incorrect.
Let's go to the man himself. How many points did Tim Henderson score in Big East play this season, Tim Henderson?
"Maybe six," Henderson said.
Or maybe not six. Maybe three – all on one shot against Pittsburgh Jan. 28.
This is what it took for Louisville to survive Wichita State Saturday night: six points in 42 seconds from Tim Henderson, the guy who got 10 minutes of playing time because Kevin Ware could not play. Two three-point shots – the first from the right corner with the Cards behind by 12 and only 13 minutes to play. The next one from essentially the same spot 42 seconds later.
Just like that the Wichita State lead was sliced in half – 47-41. Just like that Louisville was convinced it was playing into Monday night instead of going home. Just like that Tim Henderson guaranteed himself a place in Louisville basketball history alongside Tony Branch (1980) as an improbable U of L NCAA Tournament hero.
"He's The Louisville Legend now," Van Treese said.
You know why: Henderson is a walk-on who has not received a penny of scholarship money in three seasons at Louisville. He'd scored 16 points all season, making four of 17 three-point shots. The most eye-popping line in his biography is that his uncle is David Novak, the chief executive officer of YUM! Brands, the brand that has its name on the facility where Louisville plays its home basketball games.
Matt Morris, the program's former video coordinator, knew Henderson as a player at Christian Academy and invited him to play pick-up basketball with the Louisville players. Then Morris asked former U of L assistant coach Ralph Willard to scout one of Henderson's high school game.
Until Willard convinced U of L coach Rick Pitino to give Henderson a chance, he was ready to play for Wiley Brown at Indiana University-Southeast in New Albany or for Scott Davenport at Bellarmine.
Henderson even wrote a letter to Pitino, asking him for the chance. He promised that he would never regret providing the opportunity. Henderson was working out with the players at the Cards' campus practice facility in July 2010 when Pitino told him that he would be rooming with Elisha Justice, another walk-on.
Henderson still wasn't certain that U of L had a spot for him. "I called my parents and asked, ‘Does that mean that I'm on the team?' " he said.
Tim Henderson has never been more on the team than he was Saturday night. With Ware unavailable because of a broken leg, Pitino had said all week that Henderson would get many of his minutes. Not everybody believed him. Pitino says things like that all the time.
This time it happened. Henderson got six minutes in the first half – and missed his only shot as the Cardinals slipped behind 26-25.
With 13:15 to play in the second half, Pitino gave him another chance. Why not? Nobody else was making shots. The Cardinals were behind, 47-35. Season on the brink?
In came Henderson. Up went the basketball.
Good from the right corner.
Good from the right corner.
"For me, I was on the bench," Peyton Siva said. "I knew Tim had it in him."
"We're really happy for Tim hitting those shots," said Luke Hancock. "We kind of knew that was going to be our time."
Pitino waited until Hancock and Siva left the post-game podium and then the coach said what most of America was thinking when Tim Henderson made those shots.
"The players said they weren't surprised about him making those back-to-back threes?" Pitino said. "They're being very kind. I was shocked."
"Not shocked that he made them, just that he had the gumption to take them, then take it again. That's pretty darn big on this stage. That shows incredible fortitude for a young man that hasn't played any minutes to go in and do that."
Tim Henderson went in and did that. And now Louisville is playing Michigan for the national championship Monday night.