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Louisville rallies after Kevin Ware's injury to beat Duke basketball in the Elite Eight

Louisville star Russ Smith reacts emotionally to Kevin Ware's gruesome leg fracture in the first half of the Cardinals' Elite Eight win against Duke.
Louisville star Russ Smith reacts emotionally to Kevin Ware's gruesome leg fracture in the first half of the Cardinals' Elite Eight win against Duke.

INDIANAPOLIS—The Blue Devils gave it all they had Sunday night, but they could not best a Louisville team that watched one of its own be carried off the court in pain. The NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed overcame the trauma of witnessing a horrific injury to go on a huge second-half run and advance past Duke to the Final Four.

“It was a gruesome sight,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “Nothing like I’ve ever witnessed before in my life or a basketball game.”

Led by the trio of Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, the Cardinals (33-5) blew out Duke (30-6) 85-63 at Lucas Oil Stadium to punch their ticket to Atlanta. Louisville went into halftime up 35-32, and the game was tied at 42 with 16:20 left. But the Blue Devils went the next 8:15 without a field goal, a span during which the Cardinals opened up a 16-point lead.

But the story of the game was not about the Cardinals’ three stars, nor a rematch of the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game—which Duke won 76-71—nor was it even about two of the game’s best coaches meeting in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Christian Laettner’s “The Shot” in 1992. Instead, it was the injury to Louisville’s sophomore guard Kevin Ware and the way his teammates rallied around him en route to victory.

Ware, who went to high school in Georgia, was a regular in the Cardinals’ rotation during the team’s march to the Final Four in Atlanta prior to suffering his injury.

“We had to do this for Kevin,” said Siva, who had his best game of the Tournament Sunday night, scoring 16 points to go along with four assists and a steal. “That’s our whole thing. Coach told us that we need to get him back home.”

With the Cardinals leading Duke 21-17 and 6:33 on the clock, Ware lept to defend a Tyler Thornton 3-point attempt near the Louisville bench and landed awkwardly on his right leg.

“I went over and I was going to help him up, and then all of a sudden I saw what it was,” Pitino said. What Pitino, his players and everyone else watching the game saw was Ware’s lower leg visibly fractured in two places.

“When he landed, I heard it,” said Smith, who scored a game-high 23 points and was named the Midwest regional’s Most Outstanding Player. “I heard it, and then I saw what happened—[the bone had] come out, and I immediately just—just like fell.”

Siva and sophomores Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan dropped immediately to the floor even before play was stopped. Smith broke down as Pitino wiped away tears of his own. “I literally almost threw up,” Pitino said.

Thornton, who was probably closest to the injury when it occurred, ran to the other side of the court covering his face.

“My heart just dropped when I saw it,” Thornton said. “I was freaked out. I looked over and thought he rolled his foot. He lifted his leg in the air and I saw where his leg was broken. It was bent in a weird way that it shouldn’t have been.”

The game was delayed for about nine minutes as a stretcher was brought onto the court for Ware, who was rushed to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Before being whisked away to the hospital, Ware had a very clear message for his teammates.

“I don’t think any of us, with what we had to witness, could have overcome it, if it wasn’t for Kevin Ware… saying to the guys, ‘I’ll be fine. Win the game,’” Pitino said.

While the lead was just three points when the teams went to the locker room, the Cardinals put it all together shortly after the start of the second half. After a Mason Plumlee dunk with 16:20 remaining in the game that knotted the score at 42, Louisville rattled off a 24-6 run lasting longer than 10 minutes. The Cardinal guards’ ability to break down the defense and get into the paint—as well as their pesky defense—was Duke’s undoing.

“They just come at you for the whole game,” senior guard Seth Curry said. “I mean, they’re attacking you and putting pressure on you.”

Duke did not play its best basketball in the first half, but managed to stay within striking distance thanks to inspired play from juniors Thornton and Josh Hairston, who combined for 10 points in the half. Ryan Kelly played just eight first-half minutes because of foul trouble, though he managed seven points. Rasheed Sulaimon missed all five of his first-half shots. Curry only attempted three field goals in the half and did not record a single point in the period. And by committing 10 first-half turnovers, Duke played right into the hands of Louisville’s up-tempo offense.

Curry got hot at the start of the second half, hitting a pair of threes, and finished the game with 12 points. Plumlee was the most consistent threat for the Blue Devils, posting impressive totals of 17 points and 12 rebounds against a very good defender in Dieng. The rest of the team did little to help the two leading scorers, however. Kelly and Cook, who started the game a combined 5-for-7, made just 1-of-13 second-half attempts. Sulaimon ended the night 1-for-10 from the floor.

After cruising down the stretch with a double-digit lead the whole way, the Cardinals made sure Ware was a part of the postgame celebration.

“Chane held up his jersey, and we wanted to start up that [KE-VIN] chant,” junior Stephan Van Treese said.

Siva then donned Ware’s No. 5 jersey when he took the stage for the postgame press conference. Ware underwent surgery on his broken leg. Even though he will not play again this season, he is expected to be with the team for the remainder of its journey toward a national championship.

“He was saying, ‘Win this for me.... Don’t forget about the game, let’s win this. Let’s go to Atlanta,’” Van Treese said.


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