- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"Just go win this game for me. Don't worry about me. I'm fine. Just go win this game."
He was so far from fine. But that, right there, is toughness.
"I don't think we could have gathered ourselves—I know I couldn't have—if Kevin didn't [do that]," Pitino would say.
The Cardinals did not gather themselves right away, though. When Smith, who had looked unstoppable while scoring 81 points in Louisville's first three tournament games, inbounded the ball to restart play, he says, "I felt paralyzed."
They muddled through the next 6½ minutes—"I think we were still in such shock," Hancock says—and somehow took a 35--32 lead into the break. Pitino regrouped them at halftime, telling them that if they let up on their game plan for even one second, "then Kevin Ware doesn't mean how much he means to us."
In the second half they fused their emotions and their talent and delivered one of those trademark Louisville runs: The best team in the nation outscored Duke 50--31 in the final 20 minutes. Smith finished with 23 points and won the region's Most Outstanding Player award. The Blue Devils' stars—Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly—said they hadn't been bothered too deeply by Ware's injury, because they hadn't seen it up close. What they did see, in full, was a red steamroller, running them over on the way to face Wichita State in the Final Four. Just how Kevin Ware said it would happen.
The Cardinals left the nets up at Lucas Oil, as they had at Madison Square Garden after winning the Big East tournament. Ladders stood unused under each basket. They're waiting to use the ones at the Georgia Dome.
What Pitino did do, in the postgame melee, was grab a microphone and ask the crowd—consisting of probably 85% Louisville fans—one question:
"For about two minutes, can we all start chanting Kevin?"
They obliged, and it was too bad that CBS had already cut away: A certain home in Conyers would have liked to hear it. Afterward, in the locker room, the Cardinals told the story of Ware's speech over and over. Behanan said he hadn't cried like that in a long time. "Kevin Ware," Hancock said, "is a soldier."