In the first of two Final Four matchups at the Georgia Dome, a dominant performance by Wichita State ultimately turned into a momentous comeback for Louisville.
After being down by as many as 12 points in the second half, the Cardinals forced several late Shocker turnovers to regain the lead and hold off the dangerous No. 9 seed, 72-68.
Louisville was in trouble early, as Wichita State jumped out to an 8-0 lead. The Shockers defense kept Louisville guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith at bay for the remainder of the first half, giving them a one-point edge, 26-25, heading into halftime.
With roughly 13 minutes left to play and trailing by double-digits for the first time in the tournament, Louisville decided to wake up. More specifically, Luke Hancock decided it was his turn to be the hero for the Cardinals.
The swingman came off the bench to score 14 of his 20 points in the second half, highlighted by a stretch where he scored five straight points with less than two minutes to play to pad a Louisville lead that the team would not relinquish.
Smith overcame a slow start and finished with 21 points for Louisville, though both he and Siva had rough shooting nights from the field. Siva had seven points on just 1-of-9 shooting, while Smith shot 6-of-17 from the floor.
Wichita State refused to go down without a fight, as forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall answered with several made baskets in the waning minutes. Thanks to their efforts on the offensive end, the Shockers were a missed free throw away from having a shot to tie the game late.
Louisville was diligent at the charity stripe, though, and managed to close out its opponent for good after Hancock tied up guard Ron Baker on a rebound off a missed free throw with 6.3 seconds to play. The possession arrow—and the game—went to Louisville.
Early led the Shockers with 24 points, hitting clutch shots time and time again. Hall and Baker also finished in double figures for Gregg Marshall's team, capping a magical run to the Final Four.
Malcolm Armstead, the West Region's Most Outstanding Player, finished with just two points on 1-of-10 shooting.
The Cardinals will move on to the championship game on Monday night, where they will face the winner of the second game of the evening—No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 4 Michigan.
According to ESPN's Stats and Information, Wichita State lost for just the second time this season when leading at halftime:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Wichita State lost 1 game all season when leading at half ... to Southern Illinois on February 5.4/6/2013, 11:25:32 PM
While the "dome theory" was a popular explanation for the shooting struggles of Siva and Smith, Michael DeCourcy of the Big Ten Network wasn't buying it:
Michael DeCourcy @tsnmike
So I'm to believe Russ Smith hitting rim with lob was a product of dome? And the six drives made without an idea of where he wanted to go?4/6/2013, 10:54:09 PM
Ron Baker was a big reason for the team's success. Stewart Mandell of Sports Illustrated voiced his thoughts on the freshman's big tournament:
Stewart Mandel @slmandel
Shockers might not have come out of nowhere quite so much if Ron Baker had played all season. He's really good.4/6/2013, 11:32:01 PM
Prior to the game, the ESPN U Twitter account posted an unreal stat about Russ Smith in the open court. He had just two transition points at halftime and finished with six:
Russ Smith has scored more transition points in the 2013 Men’s Basketball Championship than the entire Wichita State team.4/6/2013, 1:19:28 PM
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was watching the game with particular interest, via Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated:
Seth Davis @SethDavisHoops
Boeheim watching Louisville and Wichita St. Has more than a passing interest here. http://t.co/GeyW3tmHsO4/6/2013, 11:32:42 PM
Stephen Rodrick of New York Times Magazine was on the money with his assessment of the controversial call that gave the Cardinals the ball with 6.3 seconds left to play:
Stephen Rodrick @stephenrodrick
That's either a reach-in or a no-call. There's no way that should get called.4/7/2013, 12:41:46 AM
David Aldridge of Turner Sports had some sarcastic commentary for all of the Hancock fans out there:
David Aldridge @daldridgetnt
Yeah, you had Luke Hancock scoring 19 in the national semifinal.4/7/2013, 12:28:18 AM
As noted by Nicole Auerbach of USA Today, Hancock has a special tie to taking down the Cinderella Shockers:
Nicole Auerbach @NicoleAuerbach
Luke Hancock, a George Mason transfer, could be the one who takes out the closest thing we've got left to a Cinderella.4/7/2013, 12:29:19 AM
And finally, Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports with one last tweet for Louisville's Saturday night hero:
Pat Forde @YahooForde
Luke Hancock, all the right moves. Even when he misses a key FT, it works out.4/7/2013, 12:36:40 AM
The Cardinals were clearly pressing in the early stages of this game and didn't look like the same team that wreaked havoc on defense early on in the tournament.
Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson helped change the game for Rick Pitino and company. The pair rained down threes in the second half, leading to the emotion we thought we would see all night from Louisville on the heels of Kevin Ware's devastating injury.
Wichita State will look back on its four-turnover stretch of the game as its biggest regret. You have to feel for a guy like Malcolm Armstead, who had a rough night from the field and in the playmaking department.
Ultimately, Louisville's experience and the emergence of Hancock on offense has catapulted the Cardinals into the championship game on Monday night in Atlanta.