Wichita State came oh, so close to shocking the world.
The 9-seeded Shockers were up 12 points with 13:35 to play against the heavily favored 1-seed Louisville Cardinals.
The Cards relied on a deep bench to take a 72-68 squeaker and lives to play for the national championship Monday night at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
This one gave veteran coach Rick Pitino some more gray hairs, as Wichita State was able to take the Cardinals out of their game for much of the game.
Pitino gave credit where credit was due – to Coach Gregg Marshall and Wichita State.
“Wichita State is as well coached a team we've played all year,'' Pitino said after surviving a monumental upset scare.
As injured guard Kevin Ware sat near his Louisville teammates, the game got so close down the stretch that Ware could not dare to watch, his head buried in his hands.
Ware's absence was noticeable, as Louisville's back court did not cause its usual number of turnovers, but instead it was Cool Hand Luke Hancock who came off the bench to save the day for the Cardiac Cards.
Hancock's stat sheet included 20 points, four rebounds, two assists and four steals.
It was remarkable in itself but it was his ability to tie up Wichita State's Ron Baker after Hancock missed the second of two free throws with 8.8 seconds left that could have saved the day with the Cards holding a 71-68 lead. It was a crucial call, one Baker thought was a quick whistle. The possession arrow pointed to the Cards.
“I was forced to dribble the ball because I lost my balance,'' Baker said. “I thought the ball was loose before the whistle was blown. … They already had called jump ball.''
Louisville's Russ Smith went to the free throw line with 4.9 seconds and hit the first of two to provide the final margin and take the Shockers out of reach. Smith led Louisville with 21 points.
“This team has taken us on an incredible run and I thought for a long time it was going to continue,'' an emotional Marshall told CBS-TV's Tracy Wolfson after he talked to his players who had left all they had on the court.
The incredible Cards' comeback was largely fueled by a 21-8 run. There was a span where the Cards forced five turnovers in seven possessions.
“I just kept telling the guys. … we're going to make a run. It's about defense. Give (Wichita State) their credit, but the bench won the game for us tonight.''
Louisville turned up the defensive heat, realizing it was in survival mode. It was that pressure that caused Wichita State to crack down the stretch. Baker could feel it coming.
“First you get used to it and then they increase the intensity of their pressure,'' Baker said. “It kind of hits you in waves. Towards the end of the game, it kind of took over. We fought, but came up a couple of plays short.''
It was Hancock's 3-pointer that gave Louisville a 56-55 lead, the first time the Cardinals had been ahead since the end of the first half.
It would signal the end for Wichita State's unexpected ride and it hit Marshall hard.
“This one is especially hard, because of the run we went on,'' he said.
“This may be the most important game that I'll ever coach.''
His team just came up a couple of plays short of getting to the final dance. But then the Cardinals proved why they are favored to win it all.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.