ATLANTA (WDRB) -- Destiny is fine. Depth is even better. The University of Louisville men's basketball team will face Michigan in Monday's NCAA championship game because of a guy who almost left, a guy who has to work just to lift his arm above his shoulder, and a guy who pays his own way.
Rick Pitino, who has a habit of naming horses after memorable players, is going to have to buy a whole herd. Luke Hancock came off the bench to score 20 points, the first time anyone has done that in a national semifinal since Kentucky's Jack Givens in 1975. Walk-on Tim Henderson came off the bench to score six, twice as many as he scored the entire Big East season. And Stephan Van Treese came on for starter Gorgui Dieng and did the dirty work in a game that required plenty of it.
Add a big-time second-half performance by Chane Behanan and Russ Smith's usual 20-something and you have a 72-68 come-from-behind victory over Wichita State that sends the Cardinals into the title game for the third time in school history.
"Four of our starters had their worst night of the season," said Pitino, who will coach in the title game for a third time after being announced in the 2013 Basketball Hall of Fame class that same day. "We had to win this with our second unit."
Destiny is good. Depth is even better.
For the first time this season, doubt crept in.
One game away from playing for a national championship, it was, as point guard Peyton Siva said, "Just one of those nights, to be honest. Nothing was going right."
Wichita State was tough and tenacious. It made 4 of its first 5 second-half shots and opened a 12-point lead. It had answered every Cardinal bid to close the gap. The word spread. Louisville was in trouble. At halftime, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall urged his players to pile more pressure on the heavily favored Cardinals. "The noose will tighten," he told them.
And it was tightening. It was so bad, Kevin Ware, he of the broken leg fame, hobbled up onto the raised court during the second television timeout of the half to try to "get the guys going."
"It was the first time this year I actually thought that, 'These guys could beat us,'" junior forward Stephan Van Treese said.
"Thoughts went through my head," Chane Behanan said. "Saying like, 'Oh, snap.' I even had a reality check like, 'Oh my God.' I've never seen us play that terrible."
On the bench, Van Treese and Henderson were talking. "(Henderson) told me, 'We might not make it to a Final Four again. Somebody needs to step up and do something.' Turned out, he was the guy."
Henderson entered the game with 13:15 left. Within one minute, his life would change. He buried a three at the 13:00 mark, then another with 12:18 left, cutting the Wichita State lead in half, and supplying the jolt the Cardinals needed against the Shockers.
In the postgame locker room, while Henderson was being mobbed by media, his teammates all said they knew he could do it, that they'd seen him shoot it well in practice. Pitino wasn't quite as sure.
"He got the ball there on the wing and I said, 'Knock it down, Tim,'" Pitino said. "And then I just thought to myself, 'What am I saying?'"
"He's set, now," Siva said of Henderson. "He's a hometown hero now."
"Tim's my man," Hancock said. "I am so happy for him."
Nobody would've been happy without Hancock. He put his signature on a U of L season for the books with his leadership and scoring in the second half. Hancock played three positions, spending time at small forward, shooting guard and even handling the point a few times.
When the Cards could not buy a basket early, Hancock and Montrezl Harrell came in to get them going. When they needed baskets late, Hancock was there, hitting a big three with 2:06 left to put U of L up five, then driving for a layup in traffic with 1:16 left to help them keep the lead.
With nine seconds left, Hancock went to the line. U of L led 70-68. On the sidelines, Ware didn't watch. He covered his face with his jersey. But he was doing something else.
"I was praying," Ware said. "Luke prayed for me (when he was suffering with his broken leg against Duke), I prayed for him. I kept on praying. They tapped me on the shoulder to tell me he made the first one, I didn't stop. I kept praying. And when I finally finished and said, 'Amen,' I looked up, and Luke was getting a tie-up."
Hancock missed the second of those free-throws, but with the Cardinals up three he managed to tie up Wichita State's Ron Baker to give the ball back to U of L on the possession arrow, and one more Russ Smith free throw sealed the win.
"Luke is a legend now," Behanan said. "A big one. To be honest, I never expected it out of him (early in the season), especially all the driving, all the balls in the air, flipping it up there, that's Peyton stuff."
Hancock, whose parents were in the stands, got a bit emotional about playing so well in front of them
"My dad's not doing too well right now," Hancock said. "For me, being able to do that might've been the best part of the whole night."
"That man, in the beginning of the year, took a half-hour of warmups just to lift his arm above his shoulder," Pitino said of Hancock, who has had surgery on both shoulders. ". . . Toughest kid I've ever seen. A remarkable young man."
Over the final 13 minutes, U of L scored 37 points. Despite forcing only 11 turnovers in the game, it still converted them into 17 points. For the second straight game, U of L had single-digit turnovers, and had only two in the entire second half. Russ Smith banged home enough threes to keep U of L in it in the first half. Peyton Siva found lanes to the basket late.
And after getting nothing in the turnover department for 35 minutes, the Cards got enough at the end to make their run.
The Cardinals won the game without a point from starting center Gorgui Dieng. It won despite an off shooting game from Siva (7 points, 1-9 shooting). It won despite going 20 minutes without forcing a Wichita State turnover.
Behanan, whose stats haven't been where anyone expected in recent weeks, finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, and demanded the ball at key points in the second half.
"He told me, if I get the ball, give it to him," Van Treese said. "He wanted it. That's the Chane everybody wants to see."
Said Ware, of Behanan, "'Bout time he played."
Responded Behanan: "He's probably right."
On the bench, Pitino mixed positivity with urgency. Though in an early second half timeout, he had a question for his players: "Where are the guys who came back against Syracuse?"
His players' heads were down. They were frustrated. Shots weren't falling, and Wichita State defended the paint better than any team U of L has faced this season. Pitino kept coaxing.
"I kept telling them, this is how it was going to be," Pitino said. "I told them to go out and have fun, to compete. This was going to be a dogfight, and you have to win the fight."
After the game, Behanan said of his coach: "This is the most serious person I ever saw, for a round ball. Which is a great thing because it shows the passion he has for the game, the love for it. I don't think there are many out there like him. There is so much in his head, we can't contain it all. I'm going to tell you something, though. This whole season has been a good hectic."
This team won it, not with destiny, but with determination. It already is the winningest team in school history, with 34 victories. It won its 15th straight game, fourth-longest streak in school history.
Pitino becomes the fifth man to take two schools to the title game. In the stands, Denny Crum and Darrell Griffith smiled, relieved.
"When you can win a game at this level without playing your best, you've done something," Crum said.
It happened so quickly, the Cardinals spent so little time with the lead, that players said they hadn't really had time to absorb that they were going to play for a national championship.
"We just go hard," Behanan said. "We just find a way. We come together. We've been in just about every situation before."
Every situation, that is, but a national championship game. That will happen Monday night.
Since the Ware injury, U of L has become America's team. Pitino's current run is the stuff of dreams. Title game, Hall of Fame, his horse, Goldencents, even won the Santa Anita Derby to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby. It's easy to say that this is a team of destiny. That, however, discounts all the work that has gone into it.
Saturday, August 30 2014 3:51 PM EDT2014-08-30 19:51:46 GMT
The University of Kentucky football team got some big plays from young players and a steady start from quarterback Patrick Towles to pound Tennessee-Martin 59-14 in their first season opener at home since 2007.More >>
The University of Kentucky football team got some big plays from young players and a steady start from quarterback Patrick Towles to pound Tennessee-Martin 59-14 in their first season opener at home since 2007. More >>