When sophomore guard Kevin Ware went down awkwardly with 6:33 remaining in the first half of Louisville's Elite Eight matchup against Duke on Sunday, the Cardinals could have easily folded. Instead they went on to win 85-63, and they will continue to play inspired basketball moving forward.
On a team full of superstars such as Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng, Ware was little more than a role player. No matter how small his contributions to Louisville's successful season were, though, it was clear when he left Sunday's game that his teammates wanted to finish the job in his honor.
Ware broke his right leg and has since had surgery to repair the ailment, according to Anthony Castellano of ABC News. Although the surgery was successful, his season is obviously over and there is some doubt about whether or not he can get back to the same level. Broken legs generally aren't as debilitating as they used to be due to medical advancements, but Ware's injury was particularly devastating.
Whatever the case, Ware will surely be rooting his team on when they take on the surprising Wichita State Shockers in the Final Four. Despite Wichita State's impressive victories over teams such as Gonzaga and Ohio State, the Cardinals figure to be favored heavily thanks to a star-laden roster and a longer track record of success.
When two teams get on the court and go head-to-head, those things often don't matter, though. Wichita State has proven that on multiple occasions throughout the NCAA tournament, as have teams such as Florida Gulf Coast.
Perhaps Louisville would let its guard down under different circumstances, but the added motivation of playing for a fallen teammate could go a long way toward helping Louisville realize its national championship dream.
Teams react to tough situations in different ways. Lesser squads coached by someone other than Rick Pitino could have fallen apart and lost to Duke, but the Cardinals elevated their play in a major way and blew through a team that was supposed to pose a major threat.
Wichita State may be a tougher out than Duke since the Shockers have a lot of belief right now, but few teams can compete with the Cardinals when they are playing at their highest level.
If Louisville is able to get past Wichita State, it will be favored in the national championship game whether it plays red-hot Michigan or Big East rival Syracuse. There have been no guarantees in this tournament and there have been no guarantees in this entire college basketball season, so being favored means very little at this juncture aside from having more pressure to win.
Every player on the Louisville team is probably motivated to win a national title and there is no doubt that Pitino is as well, but sometimes it takes a different type of motivation for teams to reach the highest level. Each every Louisville player saw what happened to Ware and they know he can't be on the court to contribute to a winning effort.
When push comes to shove, Ware may be even more useful to the team now than he was before. That isn't to say that Ware wasn't a talented player who filled an important role for the squad, but he wasn't a star on the team by any means. He is obviously a great teammate based on the way the players reacted upon seeing him break his leg, and those players are going to play for him for the remainder of the tournament.
Perhaps Louisville would have routed Duke with or without Ware's injury and perhaps Louisville is destined to win it all regardless of Ware's status. Things often come down to will to win rather than talent level at this stage of the game, though, and Louisville's will to win had to increase markedly when Ware fell to the floor.
With both talent and motivation now firmly in place, there isn't a team left in the NCAA field that can stop the Cardinals.
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