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Louisville pulls together to claim Final Four bid

By Jeff Goodman | College Basketball Insider

INDIANAPOLIS -- Chane Behanan was on his back, lying on the floor still in a state of shock picturing the vision he had just witnessed. Peyton Siva was on one knee, literally praying for his teammate. Duke guard Tyler Thornton sprinted down court with his hands on his head. Rick Pitino and Russ Smith were both wiping tears from their eyes, and one assistant sprinted away from the scene, yelling "Oh, my God" over and over. Kevin Ware was lying on the ground, just a few feet in front of the Louisville bench, with a bone protruding from his right leg.

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That's when Ware asked Pitino if he could speak to his teammates.

Pitino had no choice. Of course he obliged.

"Just win the game. I'll be OK," Ware repeated over and over.

Ware wasn't OK, though. He had just suffered an open fracture of his leg. It was gruesome enough to send his teammates running in different directions and graphic enough that CBS made the decision not to show a close-up replay. This one brought back memories of the worst of them all -- Joe Theismann, Marcus Lattimore and Sean Livingston. The injuries that are talked about for decades. Moments later, the sophomore guard was carried off the court on a stretcher to the cheers of just about everyone in the building -- including the Duke players and coaches.

"My heart dropped," Thornton said. "His leg was bent in a weird way, in a way it shouldn't be bent. My prayers go out to him and his family."

How in the hell was this going to affect this Louisville team, one that was supposed to get back to the Final Four? Now this wasn't an ordinary contest. Emotion was involved now, and with a bunch of college kids, that means uncertainty.

Louisville went into the locker room with a slight lead, 35-32, but the Cardinals players had 20 minutes to stew and think about their fallen teammate. Usually, the players would come in yelling and screaming if they held a lead at the break, but not this time. Instead, it was subdued. No one knew quite what to say or do.

"It was a tough moment," Louisville's Luke Hancock said.

Pitino came in and reiterated that Ware would make a full recovery in time. It will "be a while," Louisville trainer Fred Hina told the media after the game. Pitino said it was a similar injury to the one former Louisville running back Michael Bush sustained, a broken tibia that cost him nearly all of his final season in college and his rookie season in the NFL.

Pitino's message was clear, though: get their teammate to Atlanta, the site of the Final Four, which also happens to be Ware's hometown. Louisville's coach sent his players back onto the court a few minutes earlier than usual, in an effort to keep their minds focused on the task at hand: winning the game and getting to the Final Four.

"He wanted us to win it for him," Behanan said of his friend. "We had to go back out there and play basketball."

Louisville came out for the second half and appeared out of sorts. For the first few minutes, the Cards were struggling. Duke had tied the game at 42-42, and Louisville fans were visibly concerned about the mental state of their team. But that's when Peyton Siva and Russ Smith used their supreme quickness to take over the game. It began with a Smith three-point play, then it was a long jumper and a layup from Siva. After Quinn Cook knocked down two free throws, Louisville ran off the next 10 points to break the game wide open. Siva was doing virtually whatever he wanted and Gorgui Dieng was finishing in the paint and also drilling jump shots.

Louisville didn't just overcome the adversity of their injured teammate. They crushed it. The Cardinals walked off the court with a 85-63 victory, just two wins away from actually cutting down some nets.

"We want to cut down the nets on our final game," Pitino said. "We decided not to cut them down until then."

Now Louisville advances to the Final Four again. But this time is different than last season. A year ago, the Cardinals overachieved and were overwhelmed, talent-wise by the Kentucky Wildcats in the national semifinals. This year they go in as the clear-cut favorites, especially with a matchup against a ninth-seeded Wichita State club on Saturday night. This wasn't the same Louisville club that lost to Duke in the Bahamas back in November -- and not solely because Dieng wasn't in the lineup due to a broken wrist for the first matchup.

"We're a much better team than we were last year or earlier this season," Behanan said.

This team hasn't lost since that five-overtime thriller in South Bend back on Feb. 9. That was 15 games and 50 days ago. This team has balance, experience, terrific guard play and a rim protector. The Cardinals can defend. We've known that since before the season began. However, now the offense is prolific as well. Louisville put up 85 points against a Duke team that had allowed 57.3 points in its first three NCAA tournament contests.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Behanan walked down the end of the bench and grabbed Ware's No. 5 jersey. He put it on and kept pointing to it in honor of his friend and teammate. The entire crowd began chanting "Kevin."

The tears of sorrow, anguish and fear from hours earlier had turned to ones of joy. Louisville was heading back to the Final Four -- with the help of Kevin Ware.

"It's bittersweet," Siva said. "But we did what Kevin wanted. We got him back home to Atlanta."

 
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