By GREG MENGELT
Louisville overcame a gruesome injury to sophomore Kevin Ware to earn the 10th Final Foul berth in the program’s history and its second straight with an 85-63 victory over second-seeded Duke on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The top-seeded Cardinals will face Wichita State at 6:09 p.m. on Saturday in the first national semifinal at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. With a win, Louisville would face either Michigan or Syracuse on Monday in search of its third national championship in school history.
“To go to back-to-back Finals Four is special,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “To win one would be really special.”
Ware — a native of Conyers, Ga., just outside of Atlanta — broke his leg with 6:33 left in the first half with Louisville leading 21-20. He was transported to Methodist Hospital, where he was to have surgery Sunday night, via ambulance after a 12-minute delay in the game.
“I seen Kevin go out there and challenge it,” junior Russ Smith said. “And then I see what happened and I immediately just fell. I almost didn’t feel nothing, because I didn’t think in a million years I would see something like that. And when that happened, especially to a guy like Kevin Ware, I was completely devastated.”
“We had to do this for Kevin,” senior guard Peyton Siva added. “We just tried to stay together as a team. That’s all we could do.”
“I was going to help him up and all of the sudden I saw what it was, and I literally almost threw up,” Pitino said. “I don’t think we could have [pulled it together] if Kevin hadn’t said over and over, ‘Just win the game.’ It was terrible to watch, but we had to gather ourselves. We couldn’t lose this game for him. We just couldn’t.
“He’s a brave young man and we’re real disappointed for Kevin, but we’re getting him back home to Atlanta. That will be a consolation for him, certainly.”
The Cardinals were clearly shaken at the sight of Ware’s bad break, but they responded by outscoring the Blue Devils 64-43 the rest of the way for their 14th straight victory.
“We tried to match them, and we couldn’t match them,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted.
Russ Smith led the Cardinals with 23 points and now has 104 points in four games during the NCAA Tournament. Peyton Siva added 16 with four assists and no turnovers. Junior 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng added 14 points and 11 boards.
Smith, Siva and Dieng were all named to the Midwest Regional All-Tournament team. Smith was named Most Outstanding Player.
“Their two guards set an amazing pace,” Krzyzewski said of Smith and Siva. “Siva, he didn’t look like he was even sweating today.”
Mason Plumlee had team highs with 17 points and 12 boards for the Blue Devils. Two nights after scoring 29 points in a win over Michigan State, Seth Curry went scoreless in the first half Sunday before finishing with 12. The Cardinals held Duke senior Ryan Kelly to just seven points.
“We felt if we could take away their 3 and keep them out of transition, we had a great chance of winning,” Pitino said. “If you let Duke shoot or get in transition, you’re going to lose. We took those things away.”
“They were throwing two bodies at me,” Curry said. “I was trying not to force it. Credit them.”
Louisville is now 33-5 and has tied a school record for victories. The Cardinals have shot at least 52.7 percent in each of their tournament games. They are shooting 55.1 percent for the tourney.
A Curry 3 started a Duke 5-0 run that had the Devils even at 42-42, then Louisville broke open the game with a game-deciding 17-2 run that gave it a 59-44 lead with 9:39 remaining.
Smith, Siva and Dieng scored all 17 during the stretch and Luke Hancock added an exclamation point with a 3 to give Louisville a 62-46 advantage with 8:49 remaining.
The closest Duke would get the rest of the way was 14.
Louisville avenged its first loss of the season when it fell to the Blue Devils 76-71 in the Bahamas on Nov. 24.
It was a classic first half. After Louisville took an early 6-2 lead when Chane Behanan scored the Cardinals’ first six points, neither team led by more than three for the next 10-plus minutes.
Then after a Dieng 10-footer put the Cards on top 21-17 with 7:03 left, a Tyler Thornton 3 got Duke within a point and neither team led by more than three the rest of the half.
There were 10 lead changes and nine ties in the opening half. Two Quinn Cook free throws gave Duke a 32-31 lead with 50.8 seconds left, but Louisville scored the final four points of the half on free throws by Wayne Blackshear and Smith, who finished the opening stanza with 12 points.
Louisville had 30 deflections and eight steals in the first half, but the Devils out-rebounded the Cardinals 18-12.
The Cardinals came out in the second half and immediately pushed their lead to 38-32 when Smith made three free throws after being fouled behind the 3-point line.
Curry caught fire early in the second half. He hit two 3-pointers and scored eight points in the first three minutes of the half to get Duke within 42-40. A Plumlee dunk then got Duke even at 42-apiece and forced Pitino to call a timeout with 16:18 to go before Louisville went on its run.