The Louisville Cardinals may have entered Saturday’s NCAA semifinal basketball game at the Georgia Dome with more experience than the Wichita State squad – this season’s Cinderella team – but it wasn’t apparent in the early going.
It took the entire first half and much of the second for Louisville to commandeer the lead, having to erase a 12-point second half deficit to claim a 72-68 win over the Shockers and advance to the Monday night’s NCAA Championship game against Michigan.
Michigan defeated Syracuse in the second Final Four semifinal battle, 61-56.
The Cardinals, playing in their second consecutive Final Four tournament, missed their first three field goal attempts – all 3-pointers – and their first four free throws, while committing two turnovers, allowing the Shockers to gain an early 8-0 lead.
Wichita State came out fast and furious and managed to stay just one step ahead of Louisville, taking a 26-25 lead into halftime. But the call for a full-court press by Louisville coach Rick Pitino enabled his team to stay within striking distance, and just inside the second half, Louisville tied the game at 27-all.
But the Shockers would not blink.
WSU went on an 18-7 tear to take their biggest lead of the game. At 13:36, Cleanthony Early hit a 3 to put WSU up by 12, 47-35.
“We saw it was a winnable game,” said WSU center Ehimen Orukpe. “We were up and we were enthusiastic…but we made a couple of plays that, you know, the turnovers. The press caught us.”
“I don’t know if they took us for granted or overlooked us, but I felt like we jumped on them early,” said freshman guard Fred VanVleet. “…we came out aggressive and got out to an early lead.
But in the end, experience trumped adrenaline, particularly down the stretch.
Louisville guard Russ Smith, recovering from those four missed free throws early on, went on to tally 11 points in the first half, and another 10 in the second for a team-best 21 points, while junior reserve Luke Hancock contributed 20 points off the bench to help ignite the Cardinals comeback. Hancock and forward Chane Behanan combined for 18 points during the takeover, including two 3-pointers.
“We had to win it with our second unit, but he [Luke Hancock] is not a second unit player. He is probably the best offensive player we have,” commented Pitino.
“Luke is tremendous. If you saw him in practice, you wouldn’t be surprised by his performance. I’m so happy he had the game of his life,” Smith added.
Tim Henderson began the rally by hitting a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to nine with 13 minutes remaining. Before long the Cards had chipped away at the lead. Meanwhile, Wichita State was making it easy for its opponent by committing six turnovers during a 4 1/2-minute span to relinquish the lead.
Carl Hall and VanVleet had back-to-back turnovers and a steal and layup from Smith gave Louisville its first lead of the game at, a brief 60-58 hold.
“We understand at this time and its point in the season it will be a fight the whole game,” VanVleet added. “It came down to a couple of possessions. I didn’t take care of the ball like I should’ve and things just didn’t go our way.”
Hall then countered with a layup to tie the game at 60. But Behanan’s tip-in at the 3:00 mark gave Louisville the lead for good. Smith then redeemed himself on the line by making four free throws to seal the win.
Defensively, the Cards were eventually able to neutralize WSU’s early momentum with the press, despite going scoreless themselves for almost five minutes.
Louisville’s early offensive difficulties lasted 5:46, until Smith hit his team’s first field goal on a layup to break the drought.
On the other end, the Shockers were able to reduce Louisville’s run tendencies by holding the Cards to two fast-break points through much of the second period.
WSU’s Early led all scorers with 24 points while pulling down 10 rebounds. Teammate Malcolm Armstead – averaging 15.5 points per game in tournament play – was held to two points.
(Photo: Louisville’s Russ Smith drives by two defenders during Saturday’s victory over Wichita State. Photo Credit: Darrell Walker)