March 31, 2013

NCAA men: Final Four set after blowouts, surprises

ATLANTA (AP) — An inspired Louisville squad vs. the surprising Shockers.

A new group of Fab Wolverines vs. the stingiest zone defense in college basketball.

After a weekend of blowouts and another upset, the Final Four is set.

Top overall seed Louisville will face Wichita State at the Georgia Dome next Saturday, while Michigan takes on Syracuse in the other national semifinal. The winners advance to the April 8 championship.

On Sunday, the Cardinals drew inspiration from a gruesome injury to guard Kevin Ware and cruised past Duke 85-63 in the Midwest Regional. Michigan led from the opening tip, routing Florida 79-59 in the South.

A day earlier, Syracuse shut down Marquette 55-39 to win the East. Wichita State punched its Final Four ticket with a 70-66 upset of Ohio State out West.

In the final year of the Big East before it splits into two new conferences, Louisville and Syracuse provided a fitting send-off to a league that quickly became a basketball powerhouse after it was founded in 1979.

Before it goes, this version of the Big East has a shot at one more national title.
With two teams, no less.

The Cardinals — who, like Syracuse, are moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference — were the only No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four. And, boy, it’s been an impressive run.

Louisville (33-5) has won its four NCAA games by an average margin of nearly 22 points, capped by a second-half blowout of Duke after the Cardinals shook off the incredible shock of Ware’s injury with about 6 1/2 minutes to go before halftime.

“We won this for him,” coach Rick Pitino said.

The sophomore snapped his lower right leg after coming down awkwardly while defending a 3-point shot. The injury occurred right in front of the Louisville bench, where the players gasped and turned away quickly at the sight of Ware’s dangling leg, which was broken in two places.

Russ Smith collapsed onto the floor, along with several players, and was crying as doctors attended to Ware. While Ware was loaded onto a stretcher, the Cardinals gathered at midcourt until Pitino called them over, saying the injured player wanted to talk to them before he left.

The sophomore, who played his high school ball in suburban Atlanta, urged his teammates to complete the trip to the Georgia Dome. Pitino wiped his eyes as Ware was wheeled out, as did several Louisville players.

“All he kept saying — and remember, the bone is 6 inches out of his leg — all he’s yelling is, ‘Win the game! Win the game!”’ Pitino said. “I’ve never seen that in my life. We’re all distraught and all he’s saying is, ‘Win the game.’ Kevin is a special young man.”

This is a special team. Smith scored 23 points. Gorgui Dieng had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.

The Cardinals simply refused to lose, breaking open a game that was tied at 42. They dove on the floor for loose balls. They pounded the boards ferociously. They contested every shot and swarmed around the Blue Devils like they had an extra player on the court.

In a sense, they did. During every timeout, Pitino reminded the players of their hospitalized teammate.

“This is a gritty bunch,” the coach said. “From the beginning of the year to now, they’ve not had a bad game. I’m really proud of these guys.”

While the Cardinals are the clear favorite heading to their second straight Final Four, Wichita State was the most improbable team to advance.

The ninth-seeded Shockers lived up to their nickname in the West, knocking off top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round and No. 2 seed Ohio State in the regional final Saturday night.

(Continued on page 2)

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