The No. seed Louisville Cardinals' Luke Hancock, right, celebrates with teammate Stephan Van Treese after defeating Wichita State to advance to the National Championship game.
ATLANTA -- No. 1 seed and tournament favorite Louisville was in trouble.
Wichita State was handling the Cardinals' trademark pressure. The Shockers wouldn't wilt. Until they did.
Louisville rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to knock off gritty Wichita State 72-68 in a Final Four thriller on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.
The Cardinals (34-5), winners of 15 straight, advance to face Michigan on Monday in the national championship game.
But it was anything but easy.
Russ Smith led Louisville with 20 points, but sixth-man Luke Hancock was the star. Hancock added 19 points, including a corner 3-pointer that gave the Cardinals their first lead of the second half at 56-55 with 6:30 to play.
Hancock hit another 3-pointer from the left wing with two minutes left that put the Cardinals up five and ignited calls of "Luuuuuuuke" from the Cardinals faithful. The junior did most of his damage from outside but also found his way to the rim on two nifty drives that were a part of a 25-9 Louisville run that flipped the momentum to the Cardinals.
"Luke is tremendous," Smith said of his teammate. "If you saw him in practice, you wouldn't be surprised by his performance. He puts on a show every day in practice. His hard work paid off, especially on the biggest stage. I'm so happy he had the game of his life."
Cleanthony Early scored a game-high 24 points for ninth-seeded Wichita State (30-9). He hit a 3-pointer at the 13:34 mark of the second half to put the Shockers up 12. They were handling Louisville pressure efficiently. They were in control, and their crowd was on its feet singing boisterously.
Wichita State went 28 minutes without a turnover, but had six of its 11 during Louisville's closing run.
"Louisville gets credit for that," Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. "In the course of a 40-minute game against some of the best pressure you're going to see every time the ball is inbounded, we had 11 turnovers, so that's not bad. But I've got to call a different zone-pressure offense or man-press offense. We've got to execute it better and make our cuts harder."
Things started to swing in Louisville's favor when walk-on Tim Henderson hit two 3-pointers from the right wing. Henderson was playing in place of guard Kevin Ware, who suffered a gruesome leg injury in the Cardinals' win over Duke in the Elite Eight and been a major inspiration for Louisville.
"I just kept telling the guys we are going to make our own run," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who has a chance to become the first coach in history to lead two different schools to national championships. "It is about defense. The tempo is not ours. Give them their credit, but the bench won the game for us tonight. Unbelievable display."
A Hancock layup put Louisville up 67-62 with 1:16 to play. The Shockers climbed back within two twice in the final minute, but Hancock created a turnover on a held ball and Smith made a free throw to put Louisville up four with eight seconds left.
"This may be the most important basketball game I'll ever coach," Marshall said. "It's definitely the most important to date, and it's probably the most important that Wichita State's ever played in. It's tough because it's such a group of young men in that locker room that you just grow to love. They're fun to coach. They're tough as nails, tough as nails."
As time ticked down, Ware made his way on crutches down to the Louisville bench, sending a buzz through a packed and raucous Georgia Dome. Actor Will Ferrell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft were among the celebrities in attendance.
Whether it was the dome setting or nerves, both teams went through scoring droughts in a low-scoring, back-and-forth first half that was called tightly.
Wichita State scored the first eight points. Louisville didn't score until Smith made a breakaway layup at the 14:30 mark. The basket ignited a 9-0 run and got Louisville's leading scorer going.
Smith opened the game by missing four straight free throws, throwing up an airball from the corner and turning the ball over in traffic. He found his rhythm later in the half and hit three 3-pointers to help the Cardinals stay in a first half that featured eight lead changes.
Malcolm Armstead, who has carried the Shockers offensively in the tournament, also started slow. The senior missed all six of his shots in the first half and finished with just four points. He had averaged more than 15 in the Shockers' four tournament wins.
Early, Carl Hall and Ron Baker picked up the scoring slack, helping the Shockers take a 26-25 lead into halftime.
NOTES: Pitino is the first coach to take three different teams to the Final Four. ... Pitino also had a good day at the horse track, where his horse Goldencents won the Santa Anita Derby and will be one of the favorites at the Kentucky Derby. ... Wichita State is the first Missouri Valley Conference team to reach the Final Four since Indiana State in 1979. ... Louisville wore long-sleeved white T-shirts with "Ri5e to the Occasion" on the front and the No. 5 on the back in honor of injured guard Kevin Ware. ... Indiana coach Tom Crean, former UConn coach Jim Calhoun and former Louisville coach Denny Crum were all seated near each other.
Wolverines hold off Orange in other semifinal:
ATLANTA -- The Michigan Wolverines, a team that features the national player of the year and multiple stars with NBA lineage, are in the NCAA championship game thanks to a freshman who couldn’t crack the starting lineup until late in the season.
Mitch McGary had 10 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots, leading Michigan past Syracuse 61-56 on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.
The fourth-seeded Wolverines will face No. 1 seed Louisville in the national championship game on Monday night.
Michigan (31-7) built an 11-point halftime lead and fought off multiple challenges from the Orange in the second half to advance to the final for the first time since 1993.
“It is going to be a great matchup,” McGary said. “Louisville, like Syracuse, plays in the Big East. They remind me of VCU, the way they can trap and turn over the ball. It should be a great matchup.”
McGary put on a show for the second-largest crowd in NCAA tournament history, which included actor Will Ferrell, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.
McGary threw no-look passes, slammed home momentum-shifting dunks and hit a mid-range jumper that thwarted a second-half challenge from Syracuse. He posted his third double-double in five NCAA tournament games. The only thing he didn’t do was seal the game at the foul line.
Leading 57-53 with 57 seconds to play, McGary missed a pair of free throws, opening the door for the Orange, who saw their starting backcourt of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche both foul out. It hurt Syracuse on its final possession.
Down three with 17 seconds to play, reserve guard Trevor Cooney drove into the lane and missed a contested shot at the rim. Michigan got the rebound and finished off the win with a breakaway dunk from Jordan Morgan that sent the fourth-seeded Wolverines to the championship game. Morgan also took a charge that fouled Triche out in the final minute.
“We were trying to get to James (Southerland),” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who suffered his first defeat in four semifinal appearances. “They switched on it. Trevor had no choice. He did the best he could in that situation.”
Syracuse’s 2-3 zone had dominated its first four opponents in the tournament. Michigan’s strategy for attacking the zone was evident early. The Wolverines launched 17 3-pointers in the first half, connecting on six. Michael Albrecht and Carl Levert each came off the bench to hit a pair of 3-pointers, and Trey Burke buried a deep three from the top of the key that helped Michigan take a 36-25 lead into the locker room.
“That zone gives everybody problems,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I’m happy (McGary), our guards, everybody made a lot of great plays, so all these people here can stay a few extra days in Atlanta.”
The Orange tried to make a push early in the second half, but the Wolverines had an answer. Hardaway nailed an early 3-pointer, and Glenn Robinson Jr. and McGary had back-to-back dunks that pushed the lead back to 11 and forced Jim Boeheim to call timeout.
But C.J. Fair wouldn’t let the Orange go away quietly. He fueled a Syracuse rally and hit a left-handed jumper along the baseline that cut the deficit to 48-45 with 7:15 to play.
“Our defense was good enough,” Boeheim said. “Our offense was not good enough.”
Fair had a game-high 22 points, and Triche finished with 11.
Hardaway led the Wolverines with 13 points, and Robinson had 10. Trey Burke, the national player of the year, was held to seven points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Michigan never trailed after taking the lead at the nine-minute mark of the first half.
NOTES: Michigan reached the Final Four for the fifth time and first since 1993. … Boeheim is the fourth coach to guide a team to the Final Four in four decades. … Triche has played in more games than any other player in school history. … The Wolverines improved to 18-0 vs. non-conference competition this season. … Indiana coach Tom Crean, former UConn coach Jim Calhoun and former Louisville coach Denny Crum were all seated together.