If you’ve spent any time watching NCAA March Madness over the years you’re used to hearing terms like “One and Done”, future NBA All-Star, All-American and Player of the Year as the games progress through the brackets, especially by the time you get to the Final Four. Saturday night those were replaced with walk-on, bench player, and unknown freshman.
In the first semifinal that pitted Louisville against Wichita State, the No. 1 seeded team found that their starters struggled against the scrappy Shockers and as they needed to find a solution, it came from their bench. Louisville coach Rick Pitino stated in a post-game interview that he heard one of his guys yelling to junior walk-on guard Tim Henderson to “knock one down”. Pitino said he found himself saying the same in his head, then remembered that the last time Henderson took a shot in a game, he hit the side of the backboard in a game against Georgetown at Madison Square Garden. Fortunately for the Cardinals, Henderson, getting playing time in the absence of injured Kevin Ware, not only knocked down one triple, he hit two consecutive at a time that Louisville was down by 13 and in desperate need of a spark. Those two shots, which added up to just under half as many points as he scored all season (6 compared to 13), were the beginning of the Cardinal comeback that earned them a spot in Monday night’s National Championship game with a 72:68 win.
In the nightcap, Michigan held off a strong surge late in the second quarter by the Syracuse Orangemen to fill in the second spot in the National Championship game. For Michigan, they picked up over 33% of their points from their bench and had another impressive game from relatively unknown freshman Mitch McGary. The 6’10” forward averaged 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds on the season, but in the NCAA Tournament, McGary has stepped up his game and carried his mates at times when they needed a big play. In the four games prior to the Saturday’s semifinal with Syracuse, McGary was averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. In the Syracuse game he hit 10 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists. It’s McGary’s third double-double, with the other two games coming up one rebound short.
Louisville – Wichita State, 72:68
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall constantly tells his guys to ‘play angry’ and when you watch them swarm on defense, you understand what he means. The Shockers are aggressive and they are everywhere and as Pitino stated, “There’s a reason our starters played poorly, because Wichita State is that good.”
Attribute it to the common opinion that playing in a huge stadium makes it difficult to shoot because of a change in depth perception, or maybe nerves or any number of other reasons, but the Louisville starters had a rough time in the first half. So much so Wichita State was able to go into the locker room at the break up by one, then come back in the second half and get up by a dozen. Which was when the unsung ‘heroes’ for Louisville took over.
“It was like, ‘Man,'” Louisville guard Russ Smith said. “I was actually waiting for our run. And it happened. Luke exploded. That was actually what I was waiting for. Then Chane exploded. Then Peyton made a big layup. Then Tim Henderson. It just kept going and going.”
The Cardinals’s defense suffered from losing Ware, who’s a key member of the Louisville core that is also well known for their defense, but on this day, Ware was sitting in a chair at the end of the bench with his surgically repaired leg propped up on a chair and under the watchful eye of a team trainer. “I was mad the entire game. They weren’t getting out there defensively and that is what got us to this point. It finally got to a point where they started playing defense a little bit. I even got on the court and was just telling them this is going to make us win this game, so we have to get after it. It was early in the second half, around the second media timeout. I just kept yelling at them, this is what is going to make us win, defense. That’s all it was. I hopped up onto the court, actually and Fred (Hina, Louisville Head Trainer} kind of got mad that I was even up there. He was like, ‘you don’t want to be a distraction, you know.’ Got back up there and got back down before anyone could notice.”
As the game got to the critical final moments, the cameras periodically showed Ware with his face covered in his jersey and a hand from the side of the shot patting his leg to comfort him and his nerves.
The Shockers did just that, shock the Cardinals to open the contest, with an 8:0 run and holding Louisville scoreless for nearly five minutes. Once they had scored though, Louisville ran off nine unanswered of their own to take the early led.
It was the Wichita State 11:2 run in the early part of the second quarter that turned the game around initially.
That’s when Louisville’s Russ Smith got the comeback party started, dropping a triple to get the first field goal in nearly four minutes. Things didn’t look like they were changing though as Cleanthony Early split a pair of singles, ending up with a kick pass from mate Tekele Cotton, who snagged the offensive board on the second miss, and dropping in a triple of his own for a four-point sequence for the Shockers, giving them a 47:35 advantage.
On the next trip down the court Pitino heard the “knock one down” call from the bench and Henderson got the dish from Luke Hancock and sank a 22-foot jumper from the corner. During the post-game presser Hancock addressed the ‘Zone Busters’ nickname they have, “I really have no idea where that came from. When we prepare for teams that play zone, both teams run zone. Tim and I, we feel like we’re pretty good shooters. I guess that’s where it came from, just knocking down shots in the zone in practice. Tim hits shots all the time. 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.”
On the next trip down, Henderson found the same spot on the court open and this time Smith got him the rock, which promptly ended up at the bottom of the net, cutting the Wichita State lead to six, 47:41.
A key point of the contest was the one minute stretch where playmaker Peyton Siva dropped in a layup right before a media time out. When they came back Shocker freshman guard Fred Van Vleet missed a triple attempt that ended up with a quick outlet and fast break with Chane Behanan cutting the margin to two with a five-footer. Van Vleet then turned the ball over as Louisville tightened their backcourt pressure, resulting in a Hancock three-ball for the first Cardinal lead in the second half, 55:56.
The clubs exchanged baskets for a few minutes before Behanan tipped in a missed layup by Smith to put the Cardinals up two. The Shockers lost the ball on a shot-clock violation and Hancock sliced the nylon with another triple to give Louisville a five-point advantage.
In the final minute, Louisville hit five of eight at the line to keep the contest a two-possession game all the way through the end, putting pressure on Wichita State to hurry their shots. With 8.1 seconds to play Smith hit the first of two free throws to put Louisville up three, but missed the second. Ron Baker got the deep rebound for Wichita State and in what many view as either a quick whistle or a foul on Louisville’s Hancock, the officials called a jump ball with the possession arrow in Louisville’s favor. Smith was fouled on the in-bounds and hit the first of two charity tosses to ice the game with four-point lead, 68:72.
Smith was high-man for the Cardinals with 21 points and 3 assists. Hancock tallied 20 off the bench, and also nabbed 9 rebounds on the night. Behanan added 10 points and 9 rebounds to the victory.
Early was game-high with 24 points and 10 rebounds for Wichita State. Hall added 13 points and 5 rebounds, and Baker contributed 11 points and 8 rebounds.
Michigan – Syracuse, 61:56
The former Big East had a shot at having both teams in the finals, but Michigan decided to break up that clique and held on at end for a 61:56 win sending the Wolverines back to the National Championship game for the first time since the infamous ‘Fab Five’ made it in 1993. The last time Michigan cut down the nets after the title game was in 1989 when they beat Seton Hall, 80:79.
This team isn’t quite as young as the Fab Five were that year, which was their sophomore year and second consecutive National Championship attempt (losing both), but this is one of the youngest teams in the tournament, starting three freshman.
As was the case in the earlier game of the night, the starters had their troubles finding the bottom of the net, but the bench was also a key for Michigan as they picked up 21 of their 61 points in four subs. AP Player of the Year and leading candidate for the Naismith Player of the Year Award, sophomore Trey Burke, had a rough night, only scoring seven points and shooting a dismal 1 of 8 from inside the arc and 1 of 4 outside the arc.
The ‘elder statesman’ on the court for Michigan, junior Tim Hardaway, Jr., led the club with 13, and hit the first triple of the contest. Hardaway’s father, Tim, Sr., found out last Wednesday that he came up short of votes in the Naismith Hall of Fame voting this year, after his 13-year NBA career where he averaged 18.1 points and 8.3 assists over 867 games.
Deep in the first half the Wolverines went on a 10:2 run to build a seven-point lead, including points from bench players Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert.
Burke hit his sole three-pointer and final points either team would score in the half, with a minute left on the clock to send the clubs into the break with Michigan up 11, 25:36.
Michigan’s game plan was simple, work the ball for an open shot and pull the trigger as soon as they were open. They worked in practice on shooting the ball up and over the aggressive Syracuse zone by having guys stand with big foam pads on sticks so the guys got the feel of putting some air under the ball, but more importantly, a quick release. The 11-point first half lead was an indication of how well it was working for them.
As any good team will say though, even though you’ve got to put the ball in the hole to win games, you also have to keep your opponent from doing the same and Burke summed their night up nicely, “At the end of the day, it wasn’t offense,” he said. “A lot of us didn’t have good shooting nights, but it was defense that allowed us to advance.”
In the second half the gap remained at 10 with 13 minutes to play, but Syracuse ran off six unanswered to cut the lead to four, 41:45. Hardaway, Jr. drained a triple to push the lead back to seven, but was countered by Baya Keita layup and a C.J. Fair jumper in the paint.
Syracuse chipped away at the lead slowly over the rest of the half and when the clock dropped under a minute remaining, Triche connected on a lay-up getting the Orangemen back to within four. On the other end, McGary missed two free throws and after the second, Fair got the rebound to James Southerland, who dropped in a triple with 41.3 seconds to play, cutting the deficit to one, 56:57.
Burke was fouled on the in-bounds play, but could only hit the second of two free throws. Triche drove the lane at the other end and was whistled for a charge when Jordan Morgan stepped in to plug up the lane, giving the ball back to Michigan. Keita fouled Jon Horford, and again the Michigan shooters could only manage to hit one of two, giving Syracuse the ball back with 17.9 seconds to play and a three-point deficit, 56:59. After a timeout to draw up a play, Syracuse got the ball to Trevor Cooney, who drove the lane instead of getting it to a shooter behind the arc for a chance to tie the game, and had his shot rejected. Hardaway, Jr. saved the ball and tossed it to Morgan at the other end for a dunk at the buzzer, sending the Wolverines to the finals and the Orangemen home…
Hardaway led Michigan with 13 points and 5 rebounds, Glenn Robinson III and McGary added 10 each, and McGary hauled in 12 rebounds.
Fair was game-high with 22 points, Triche added 11 points for Syracuse.