As the final buzzer sounded, Chane Behanan tossed the ball high into the air and Henderson and Hancock did a flying shoulder bump at midcourt.
“It's just a mix of emotions, of feelings. It hurts to have to lose and be the end of the season,” said Early, who led the Shockers with 24 points. “But these guys fought to the end, and we had a great season and keep our heads high and know the grind doesn't stop.”
The Cardinals were the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, and they steamrolled their way through their first four games, winning by an average of almost 22 points. They limited opponents to 59 points and 42 percent shooting while harassing them into almost 18 turnovers a game, setting an NCAA tourney record with 20 steals against North Carolina A&T.
The presence of Ware was supposed to provide even more motivation for Louisville. He urged his teammates to “just go win the game” before being wheeled off the court on a stretcher last weekend. Three days later, he joined the Cardinals as they made the trip to the Final Four in Atlanta, Ware's hometown.
The Cardinals have modified their warm-up T-shirts in Ware's honor — they now read “Ri5e to the Occasion,” with Ware's No. 5 on the back. He had a seat at the end of the bench, his right leg propped up on towels, and every one of the starters went to shake his hand after being introduced.
But whether it was the roller-coaster of the last week, the expectations or just Wichita State, the Cardinals seemed out of sorts much of the night. Wayne Blackshear and Gorgui Dieng went scoreless, and Siva was just 1-of-9.
“There's a reason our starters played poorly, because Wichita State is that good,” Pitino said
Wichita State may not have the names or pedigree of a Louisville, Syracuse or Michigan. But what the Shockers lacked in star power they more than made up for in hustle and heart. This, after all, was a team with one player (Carl Hall) who salvaged his career after working in a light bulb factory and two more (Armstead and Ron Baker) who paid their own ways in their first years.
The Shockers barely seemed to notice that vaunted Louisville press until the final minutes of the game. They didn't rush shots, working it around until they got a look they liked — Louisville was called for more than one foul late in the shot clock, including one on Smith with only a second left — and they were relentless on the backboards.
And that “play angry” defense? Now the Cardinals have an idea of how their opponents have felt. Wichita State bottled Louisville up inside, never letting Gorgui Dieng be a factor, and the Cardinals were continually forced to put up awkward and bad shots from outside.
“We were kind of waiting to make our run,” Hancock said. “Obviously you're a little concerned when you're down by 12 in the second half. We just had to turn up our intensity, maybe gamble a little more.”
Louisville was struggling so badly that Ware actually got out of his seat at one point, hobbling over to the Louisville huddle.
“He just wanted to tell us that we needed to pick it up,” Siva said. “We know how much it would mean for him to be out there. He just tried to give us whatever we needed, the extra motivation, the extra boost to get over the hump. That's what he did.”
The Shockers have had trouble hanging onto leads, and this game was no different. After Henderson's 3s, the Cardinals were off and running, all the way to the last game of the season.
“Coach Pitino kept telling us to go out there and have fun and keep playing and we were going to win. Stop hanging our heads,” Siva said.
“That's what we did.”