The scene after Louisville s Kevin Ware sustained an open fracture of his right leg late in the first half was surreal. Four Cardinals woozily held each other up at center court several appearing on the brink of fainting others crying and shaking. Coach Rick Pitino dabbed away tears. Players on the bench said a prayer.
While being treated on the floor before a cart carried him off to a hospital Ware called his teammates over but they could not hear him. Pitino had to yell.
Guys Pitino cried. He wants to say something.
Russ Smith Peyton Siva Chane Behanan Wayne Blackshear and Gorgui Dieng gathered around Ware who said through tears Just win it for me y all.
His words soothed the souls of 13 players who turned their sorrow into fuel. Louisville the region s No. 1 seed responded by dismantling the second seeded Blue Devils 85 63 in a commanding second half performance at Lucas Oil Stadium to earn a second consecutive trip to the Final Four.
At halftime Pitino told his team to win for Ware who grew up in Atlanta where the Final Four will be held. At the time of Ware s injury the Cardinals led 21 20 but it was going to take a monumental resurgence of character not to let the scene they had witnessed derail their play.
They emerged from the locker room with eight minutes before the second half began unusually early. They were ready to run run run again.
We couldn t lose this game for him Pitino said. We just couldn t.
Louisville unleashed a torrent of layups and steals blocks and dunks a basketball bludgeoning. The Cardinals (33 5) shot 59.2 percent in the second half to hand Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski his second loss in 13 appearances in the Round of 8.
We know how hard it is to beat Duke Pitino said. If you let Duke shoot and you let Duke get in transition you re going to lose. We took those two things away.
Pitino does know how hard it is to beat Duke. As the Kentucky coach in 1992 his team lost to the Blue Devils in overtime of the 1992 East Region final on Christian Laettner s buzzer beating shot perhaps the most famous play in college basketball history.
The two coaches remained close friends they even appeared in socks and underwear together in a popular commercial in 2009 for the video game Guitar Hero but faced each other only one more time since then in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas on Nov. 24.
Duke (30 6) won that game 76 71 handing Louisville its first loss but the Cardinals were without their center Dieng who had a broken left wrist and whose absence left the team without an integral defensive presence inside. Dieng sprinkled in a little offensive game Sunday scoring 14 points with 11 rebounds and 4 blocks.
Louisville s pestering defense had a discernible effect on Duke s Seth Curry who struggled finding open shots in the first half after his 29 point outburst carried the Blue Devils against Michigan State in the Round of 16.
They just come at you the whole game Curry said. They re a great backcourt and it was a tough test today.
Curry guarded by Siva and Luke Hancock stirred to life in the second half scoring Duke s first 8 points. But the success was short lived and then again the Cardinals were motivated.
At halftime the Louisville coaching staff did not know what to expect. The mood was somber. Pitino s message was short.
Don t lose this game for Kevin Ware Smith recalled.
Less than four minutes into the second half Mason Plumlee dunked in a putback to tie the score 42 42. Then Smith hit a layup and Siva hit a jumper and Behanan made a steal. Within minutes Louisville was on a 17 2 run. The shift was reminiscent of the Cardinals second half dismantling of Syracuse in the title game of the Big East tournament.
The rout was on.
I thought we had a chance there and then boom Krzyzewski said. That s what they do to teams.
Siva scored 10 of his 16 points after halftime and Smith finished with a game high 23 to earn the region s most outstanding player award. Remarkably the Cardinals were only 2 of 13 from the 3 point line. They scored 42 of their points in the lane.
Pitino thanked his son Richard the Florida International coach for suggesting to him at practice Saturday a different way to incorporate the pick and roll knowing how good Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are at defending it.
It worked to perfection Pitino said.
After the game as ladders were assembled underneath the hoops the Louisville players ran off the court. They told one another before the Big East tournament that they would not cut down nets until after the national championship game.
We just want the big one Behanan said.
At some point before the final buzzer Ware s No. 5 jersey made its way back to the Louisville bench. Behanan Ware s closest friend on the team held it aloft and then pulled it on. The crowd chanted Kevin s name. The tears welled up again.