ATLANTA — The deficit was getting bigger, the clock was becoming an enemy, and Louisville's options were dwindling.
"I just kept telling the guys, 'We're going to make a run,' " coach Rick Pitino said. "The bench won the game for us. Unbelievable display."
Luke Hancock came off the bench to score 20 and walk-on Tim Henderson sparked a second-half rally with two 3-pointers as Louisville escaped Wichita State 72-68 in an NCAA Tournament semifinal game Saturday.
The Cardinals (34-5) advanced to the final for the first time since they won it all in 1986.
"We just played super hard," said Russ Smith, who led the Cardinals with 21 points. "Nobody wanted to go home."
Cleanthony Early scored 24 for the Shockers (30-9), the West's No. 9 seed, who nearly pulled off their biggest upset of all.
Wichita State beat top-seeded Gonzaga in the round of 32 and No. 2-seeded Ohio State in the region final to reach its first Final Four since 1965. And it had a 12-point lead with 13:35 to play, the largest deficit all tournament for Louisville. But the Cardinals had come back to win five games after trailing by nine or more already this season, including rallying from a 16-point deficit in the Big East tournament final against Syracuse.
This one trumped them all.
"We were kind of waiting to make our run," Hancock said. "Obviously, you're a little concerned when you're down by 12 in the second half. We just had to turn up our intensity, maybe gamble a little more."
Henderson, a walk-on forced into increased playing time because of guard Kevin Ware's broken right leg sustained in last week's region final against Duke, made back-to-back 3s to spark a 21-8 run.
"Four of our starters had their worst start of the season," Pitino said. "There's a reason our starters played poorly. Wichita State is that good."
While Hancock and Behanan knocked down shots, Smith and Peyton Siva were turning up the heat on the Shockers.
After going more than 26 minutes without a turnover, Siva darted in to strip the ball from Carl Hall. He fed Hancock, who drilled a 3 that gave Louisville its first lead since 1:45 left in the first half.
"Down the stretch, we were just loose with the ball," Wichita State guard Malcolm Armstead said. "I can't give you an explanation. It just happened."
Early gave the Shockers one more lead, on a three-point play. But Siva scored, and Smith got a steal and easy layup that gave Louisville a 60-58 lead with 4:47 left. The Cardinals made it 65-60 on a tip-in of a Smith miss and another 3 by Hancock.
Wichita State had one last chance, pulling within 68-66 on Early's tip-in with 22 seconds left. But Smith and Hancock made free throws to seal it.
"It's just a mix of emotions, of feelings. It hurts to have to lose and be the end of the season," Early said. "But these guys fought to the end, and we had a great season and keep our heads high and know the grind doesn't stop."