Things looked kind of bleak for the overwhelming favorite to reach the final of the NCAA tournament midway through the second half, but an unexpected performance from Luke Hancock coming off the bench led Louisville to yet another impressive comeback from a big deficit this season, giving Russ Smith, in another impressive scoring performance, the help he needed.
Hancock, a Junior who has seen his playing time fall back a bit this season and averaged only 6.8 points in the previous four tournament games, stepped up in the crescendo to a very tough match for Louisville, who couldn’t manage to press and push Wichita State around like they had with all their previous opponents. Eventually, Louisville step up in the second half and closing minutes, and it happened once again, leading to a 72-68 win, and their first national title game since 1986, when they won the whole thing.
Russ Smith finished with 21 points, giving him his fifth consecutive game with 20 points or more, looking like a sure thing to win the Final Four MVP if the Cardinals manage to beat Michigan in the final. Maybe playing a time that likes to run, although with a bit more talent on its roster, will do them better than playing the likes of Wichita State, who kept their turnovers to a minimum and played patient, inside-outside kind of basketball, that frustrated the Cardinals who didn’t seem to know how to handle it.
Eventually, quality and pressure prevailed. Down 12 with 13 minutes left in the game, Louisville went on a 21-8 run to grab a 56-55 lead through Luke Hancock’s three pointer, and another three from the surprising bench player gave them a five point lead with 1:58 to go. In the final seconds, with a lead of two, Hancock got to the line, made one and forced a jump-ball off his miss, leading to another trip to the line, this time for Russ Smith who sealed the deal.
Wichita State? They almost pulled off the biggest upset of them all, after already taking care of Gonzaga and Ohio State along the way. They turned the ball over only 10 times throughout the entire game, but 7 of those turnovers came in the final 7 minutes. The moment Louisville managed to speed up play in the final 13 minutes of the second half, the Shockers seemed less and less comfortable with where they were at.
For the Cardinals, it’s now to hoping that it’s a repeat of 1986, and the national title returns to the Red Side of Kentucky. It’s been quite a while for Rick Pitino, who has won a national title with his current team’s biggest rivals. The absence of Kevin Ware has hurt his rotation, his depth and the team’s ability to keep the pressure going for 40 minutes. By finding someone who doesn’t mind stepping up after not being used much this season, the Cards are hoping they’ve found the answer to their missing person.