Cards' Hancock steps up with 20 points as Louisville escapes Wichita State
ATLANTA -- There was one question almost everyone on Louisville was asked heading into its semifinal matchup with Wichita State: Who would step in for the injured Kevin Ware after he suffered that gruesome leg injury against Duke in the Elite Eight?
It was only fitting that Luke Hancock -- the guy who fought for playing time all season with Ware off the bench -- was the one to answer the bell. The transfer from George Mason scored 20 points off the bench -- his second-highest total in a Louisville uniform -- to lead the Cardinals into Monday’s national championship game in a 72-68 victory.
That wasn’t always a lock against the pesky ninth-seeded Shockers, in a game which saw Louisville held scoreless for the first five minutes and trailed by as many as 12 with 13:35 remaining. But just as they did all year, the Cardinals battled back.
“They were unbelievable the entire team with their defensive intensity,” Hancock said. “We had to just come out and execute on offense, especially in the second half we had to pick it.”
The bench was the key for Louisville in doing that, on a night in which Peyton Siva went just 1-for-9 and Gorgui Dieng was held scoreless. Hancock led a group which scored 34 points.
“We had to win this game with our second unit of Steven Van Treese, Tim Henderson, one of the best sixth men in basketball Luke Hancock, and Montrezl Harrell,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “ The reason our starters played poorly is because Wichita State is that good. So we're really happy to be playing in the final game.”
But it wasn’t only Hancock. Enter Tim Henderson -- a seldom-used walk-on guard who was pressed into action because of the Ware injury. Henderson averaged just 3.5 minutes per game and 0.6 points per contest. The Louisville native was just 4-for-17 from 3-point range entering Saturday’s game. So of course, when the Cards needed it the most -- down 12 in the second half -- Henderson nailed back-to-back 3s to cut the lead in half and finished with a career-high six points.
“Tim hits shots all the time,” Hancock said. “It wasn't shocking for us for him to knock down shots like that. I'm just really happy for him and proud of him.”
Louisville still needed more. And they would get it from Hancock.
Hancock’s 3-pointer with 6:35 brought the loudest roar of the night from the Louisville faithful, as it gave the Cardinals their first lead since the end of the first half. And much like the Big East Championship final which saw them trail by as many as 16 in the second half to Syracuse, the Cards had come all the way back to take the lead.
“Luke's an excellent player and an excellent person,” Siva said. “He didn't get named team captain for nothing before he even played a game with us. He showed his leadership out there [Saturday night]. He showed his leadership when Kevin got injured. He's an all around great player and person.”
“Well, if you said to me, ‘Is Luke top three player on the team?’ I would say, ‘Without question,’ ” Pitino said. “There's no question that all of you can see he's one of the better players on our team. He just gave us a tremendous lift [Saturday night].”
It was all Hancock, all the time down the stretch. As he scored nine of the team’s final 19 points, including two 3-pointers, a layup and one free-throw with eight seconds left to increase the Cardinals lead to three. But it’s what he did after which might be his best play of all.
Instead of sulking following his missed free-throw, Hancock tied up Wichita State’s Ron Baker after he grabbed the rebounding, forcing a jump ball. Possession arrow? Louisville, with 4.8 seconds on the clock. Hancock had iced the game, even if he hadn’t at the charity stripe.
So maybe it was Hancock’s close relationship with Ware that helped Saturday night. Ware was right there next to Louisville’s bench. Right there for his close friend as inspiration.
“We were really close before, and we're really close now,” Hancock said. “It's a very tough injury and a tough situation. But, like you say, we're brothers for life. I have that guy's back in any situation. I know he has mine. You know, I don't really know why I went out there.”
On this night, in Ware’s hometown, Hancock had everyone’s back.