Thursday, January 18, 2018

Role reversal gets Louisville to title game


This time, it was Kevin Ware who was praying for Luke Hancock.

This time, it wasn't about a broken leg. It was about avoiding a broken heart.

There were nine seconds left, and Louisville was still hyperventilating at the sight of the stubborn Wichita State Shockers, and the night was still in doubt. Hancock, the hero of the moment, stepped to the free-throw line with a two-point lead, and Ware, the player turned inspiration, bowed his head.

Hancock? He hit the free throw.

After all, it would have been bad form not to do so.

Frankly, the Cardinals needed all the help they could get against Wichita State on Saturday night. They needed Ware praying, and they needed Hancock on the wing, and they needed the rest of their bench to hold off the Shockers in a 72-68 victory. They needed a late comeback, and they needed their press to finally start working, and they needed Wichita State to finally fade in the end.

All of that, and whew.

On a wing and a prayer, the Cardinals reached the final.

There for a while, it looked a little dodgy. There is something stubborn about the Shockers, this team of collectables from all over the country. Wichita State scored the first eight points of the game and at one point in the second half held a 47-35 lead. Louisville retreated into a frenzied effort at catch-up, but for the longest time, the Shockers refused to give ground on the No. 1 team left in the tournament.

There was a fierceness to Wichita State born of the unappreciated. After all, the Shockers were a No. 9 seed in this tournament, a team made up of ex-junior college players and leftovers. Two of the Shockers — Malcolm Armstead and Ron Baker — actually paid their way for their first season at Wichita State.

Still, they were almost enough. If it hadn't been for Hancock, they probably would have been.

You remember Hancock. He was the player who first reached Ware last week after he fractured his leg and prayed over him. That image made Hancock a favorite son in Louisville. A performance like this, however, will make him a legend.

This time, Hancock played the role of miracle worker. He scored 20 points, including 14 of them in the second half, as Louisville completed its comeback. At a time when the game was about to get away from the Cardinals, he restored order. He hit 6 of 9 shots, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range.

"If you said to me, 'Is Luke a top-three player on the team,' I would say 'without question,' " said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "Then you may say, 'Why doesn't he start?' We don't want to get him in foul trouble. We want him to play as many minutes as possible because he's the best passer, the clutchest shooter and free-throw shooter and one of the smartest players to know what to do in crucial situations. He just gave us a tremendous lift tonight."

Good thing. Otherwise, he would have to answer to Ware.

"Kevin's a big part of this team," Hancock said. "Kevin's my guy."

They are a twosome these days, a fallen teammate and his friend, linked by success and by tragedy. There was a time Saturday night when Ware rose to join the team huddle.

"I thought he was going in for me," said teammate Peyton Siva.

Actually, Ware was a little annoyed at the moment.

"I was mad the entire game," Ware said. "(The Cards) weren't getting out there defensively, and that's what got us to this point. I was just telling them that was what was going to make us win. Defense."

Well, that and grit.

Go back, for instance, to the offseason, when Hancock was trying to come back from two shredded shoulders to play.

"Fred Hina, our trainer, said to me that Luke's first shoulder was a bad one. The second one, he had never seen so much damage in his life," Pitino said. "It took him a half-hour of warmups just to lift his arm above his shoulder. I said, 'Is he going to play this year?' He said, 'No one but Luke will play.' Toughest kid I've ever seen."

Consider the two layups when Louisville was coming back. Consider the 3-pointer to give Louisville a 56-55 lead. Consider another 3-pointer that made it 65-60.

This was why you work in rehab so far. This was why Hancock transferred from George Mason. This was why Pitino named Hancock a captain even before the season began.

All of it was building toward a night like this.

Hancock's night. Ware's night. Louisville's night.


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