INDIANAPOLIS — Crying and shaken by the sight of Kevin Ware writhing on the court, his right leg splintered, Rick Pitino and his Louisville players had no idea how they were going to pull it together with a half still left to play and a Final Four berth on the line.
Ware showed them the way.
‘‘I don’t think we could have gathered ourselves — I know I couldn’t have — if Kevin didn’t say over and over again, ‘Just go win the game,’ ’’ Pitino said. ‘‘I don’t think we could have gone in the locker room with a loss after seeing that. We had to gather ourselves. We couldn’t lose this game for him. We just couldn’t.’’
With Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, and Gorgui Dieng leading the way, the Cardinals finally shook off their grief early in the second half, erupting for a 13-2 run that Duke was powerless to answer. The 85-63 victory clinched a second straight trip to the Final Four for the top-seeded Cardinals, who are determined to win it all for Ware, a New York City native who moved to the Atlanta area for high school. The Cardinals (33-5) will play Wichita State in the national semifinals next Saturday in Atlanta.
As the final seconds ticked down, Ware’s best friend on the team, Chane Behanan, put on the guard’s No. 5 jersey and stood near the bench, screaming. Cardinals fans chanted ‘‘Kevin Ware! Kevin Ware!’’
‘‘We talked about it every timeout, ‘Get Kevin home,’ ’’ Pitino said.
Smith finished with 23 points and earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the Midwest Region. Siva added 16 while Dieng had 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Mason Plumlee had 17 points and 12 rebounds for Duke. But the Blue Devils (30-6) couldn’t overcome a poor start by Seth Curry, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half, or their foul trouble.
‘‘I thought we had a chance there, and then, boom,’’ coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ‘‘That’s what they do to teams. They can boom you.’’
This was the first time Pitino and Krzyzewski had met in the regional finals since that 1992 classic that ended with Christian Laettner’s improbable buzzer-beater, a game now considered one of the best in NCAA Tournament history.
This game will be remembered, too, but for a very different — and much more somber — reason.
With 6:33 left in the first half, Ware, who has played a key role in Louisville’s 14-game winning streak, jumped to try and block Tyler Thornton’s 3-point shot. When he landed, Ware’s right leg snapped midway between his ankle and knee, the bone skewing almost at a right angle. Ware dropped to the floor right in front of the Louisville bench and, almost in unison, his teammates turned away in horror.
‘‘I heard it and then I seen what happened, [the bone] come out,’’ Smith said. ‘‘I immediately just, like, fell. I almost didn’t feel nothing.’’
Pitino had tears in his eyes as he tried to console his players. Dieng draped an arm around the shoulders of Smith, who repeatedly wiped at his eyes and shook his head.
‘‘It was really hard for me to pull myself together,’’ Smith said. ‘‘I didn’t ever think in a million years I would ever see something like that. And that it happened, especially, to a guy like Kevin Ware, I was completely devastated.’’
As the Cardinals gathered at halfcourt to try and regroup before play resumed, Pitino called them over to the sideline, saying Ware wanted to talk to them before he left.
‘‘Basically, the bone popped out of the skin. It broke in two spots,’’ Pitino said. ‘‘Remember the bone is 6 inches out of his leg, and all he’s yelling is ‘Win the game, win the game.’ I’ve never seen anything like that.’’
News of the injury dominated social media. Joe Theismann, whose NFL career ended with a horrific broken leg, said on Twitter, ‘‘Watching Duke/ Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware.’’
School officials said Ware had surgery on his leg Sunday night at nearby Methodist Hospital and was resting comfortably. The bone was reset and a rod inserted into his right tibia. Ware is expected to stay in Indianapolis until at least Tuesday.
‘‘He’ll come back,’’ Pitino said. ‘‘We’ll get Kevin back as good as new.’’
But when play resumed, it was clear the Cardinals’ minds were elsewhere. They missed four of their next five shots along with two free throws. But they regrouped after a timeout, with Smith’s finger roll sparking a 12-6 run to finish the half that gave them a 35-32 lead.
But just as he did against Michigan State, Curry got hot after halftime, making two threes in the first three minutes. A Plumlee dunk tied the game at 42. That, however, was all Louisville needed.Continued...