The 2013 NCAA tournament will wrap up on Monday evening in Atlanta with a national championship clash between the Louisville Cardinals and Michigan Wolverines.
It took a stirring second-half charge for Rick Pitino's squad to emerge victorious, 72-68, over the Wichita State Shockers in the first Final Four matchup.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines finally cracked the Syracuse Orange's 2-3 zone enough thanks to the continued outstanding play from freshman forward Mitch McGary, winning 61-56.
Neither team would be national finalists without getting the job done on Saturday, but several games that preceded these two marquee showdowns wound up impacting the journey of both Louisville and Michigan.
Here is a look at the three games that were major turning points in the tournament and wound up most prominently setting the stage for March Madness' epic conclusion.
Louisville Cardinals 85, Duke Blue Devils 63
Duke's high-powered offense and the Cardinals' stifling pressure defense made this seem like one for the ages between the East's top two seeds.
It was in a sense, but in a rather unfortunate way. Louisville reserve guard Kevin Ware suffered one of the more gruesome injuries in recent memory, and it came at a time when the game was extremely tight.
Instead of possibly being too shaken to carry on, the resilient Cardinals significantly elevated their play and romped to a 22-point triumph to reach the national semifinals. That continued to justify the selection committee's decision to make Louisville the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.
USA TODAY Sports' Twitter page later revealed Cardinals big man Chase Behanan rocking Ware's No. 5 jersey:
USA TODAY Sports @USATODAYsports
Touching moment as Chane Behanan put on Kevin Ware's jersey: http://t.co/smT5Te2ODX // http://t.co/PkTfgId5GQ2013-3-31 23:46:24
The Blue Devils simply couldn't hang with the superior seed, as it was the Cardinals' offense that actually drove the team to victory. A 50-point second half was too much for even Duke's versatile attack to handle, and Russ Smith led the way, finishing with 23 points.
That experience of overcoming adversity ultimately gave Louisville the resolve to overcome a 12-point deficit against the Shockers in the Final Four, and the Cardinals will be favorites once again in the final.
Michigan Wolverines 87, Kansas Jayhawks 85 (OT)
Apparently no one told the fourth-seeded Wolverines that the Jayhawks had the best field-goal percentage in the country.
If there were any doubts as to how legitimate McGary was before this contest, they were emphatically put to rest. Facing the nation's best defensive big man in Jayhawks center Jeff Withey, McGary put up 25 points and 14 rebounds.
But it was super sophomore Trey Burke who ultimately pushed the Wolverines past the Sweet 16. His three-pointer from well beyond the arc knotted the game at 76 apiece, forcing the extra five-minute period. It was a sensational performance, as Burke scored all of his 23 points after halftime.
Without that takeover—which has been a familiar trend for Burke this season—the Wolverines would have never even reached the Elite Eight.
That shot essentially catapulted the Wolverines into two subsequent wins against the difficult defenses of both the Florida Gators and the Orange. Suddenly, John Beilein's squad is playing for the national championship.
Wichita State Shockers 70, Ohio State Buckeyes 66
Thad Matta's Buckeyes were perceptibly given a gift with the ninth seed in the West region meeting them in the Elite Eight.
However, the Shockers were not to be taken lightly, as they jumped out to a 13-point halftime lead.
By the time Ohio State recovered, it was too little, too late. Even a heroic effort by versatile forward LaQuinton Ross—who scored 17 of his 19 points after the midway point—couldn't bring the Buckeyes back.
A combination of stout perimeter defense and incredibly clutch shots down the stretch allowed Wichita State to hold on. Tekele Cotton hit a massive three-pointer to expand the lead to six late in the game, and a kind iron floater by Fred Van Vleet put the game out of reach for OSU.
As Saturday proved, Wichita State belonged in the Final Four. Having said that, the Buckeyes would have also provided a very stiff test, with a proven, No. 1 scoring option in Deshaun Thomas and an elite defense of their own.
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