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Inspiration, stifling ‘D’ late send Louisville to title game

Injured KevWare tries motivate his Louisville teammates during timeout Saturday. | Andy Lyons~Getty Images

Injured Kevin Ware tries to motivate his Louisville teammates during a timeout Saturday. | Andy Lyons~Getty Images

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◆ Louisville 72, Wichita State 68

◆ Michigan 61, Syracuse 56

Updated: May 8, 2013 7:03AM

ATLANTA — Louisville is a lot like an NBA team. But before you start with the salary-cap jokes, I’m referring to its ability to go on a run. During any given game, the Cardinals know the run is coming, their opponent knows it’s coming and — OK, fine — their agents know it’s coming, too.

The run came late in the game Saturday against Wichita State, and it came the way you’d expect it to come from Louisville’s uber-aggressive approach to playing basketball: with suffocating, full-court pressure that forced five Shockers turnovers in a 4½-minute span late in the second half.

The result was a 72-68 victory for the Cardinals and a spot in the national championship game Monday against Michigan.

The romantics will chalk it up to the presence of Kevin Ware near the end of Louisville’s bench, and I certainly won’t get in the way of it. He has been on the minds of his teammates ever since his ugly leg injury against Duke in the Midwest Regional final. He has become a national symbol of teeth gritted in pain, if not grit. And, this being America, he has become a pawn of corporate greed.

But during a TV timeout in the second half, Ware got up out of his chair and, leg cast and all, joined his teammates in the huddle. It was just him and his friends, the way it should be.

‘‘I was mad the entire game,’’ he said. ‘‘They weren’t getting out there defensively, and that is what got us to this point. . . . I just kept yelling at them, ‘This is what is going to make us win — defense.’ ’’

Did that lead to added resolve from the Cardinals and the flurry of turnovers from Wichita State? Nobody knows. Well, CBS probably knows. If the network could have, it would have had its cameramen lay hands on Ware at midcourt. Instead, it had to settle for numerous shots of him cheering on his teammates. On second thought, forget the faith healing; crutches make for better TV.

Wichita State took a 12-point lead when Cleanthony Early made a three-pointer with about 13½ minutes left. Those not versed in the ways of Louisville might have been thinking life was looking very grim indeed for the Cardinals. But not long after, Louisville’s Tim Henderson, a walk-on getting more minutes because of Ware’s injury, made back-to-back three-pointers to cut the Shockers’ lead to 47-41.

And not long after that, Ware hopped into the huddle.

‘‘It showed a lot of heart that he really came out there,’’ Louisville point guard Peyton Siva said. ‘‘He just wanted to tell us that we need to pick it up. . . . He tried to give us whatever we needed, the extra motivation, the extra boost to get over the hump. That’s what he did.’’

How tough was the Cardinals’ defense late? For Wichita State, it must have felt like playing in a hothouse. For Louisville, it meant being so up in the Shockers’ faces that it could tell who was a candidate for a tonsillectomy.

‘‘At first, you get used to it,’’ Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. ‘‘Then they increase the intensity of their pressure, and it kind of hits you in waves. Toward the end of the game, it took over.’’

There were many reasons to root for the Shockers, even if some of them were based on a nostalgia for simpler times that doesn’t really fit. It’s not as though Wichita State is from Mayberry, after all. And it’s probably time we did away with the whole idea of the mid-major. With the talent drain in the college game, there are lots of good teams in lots of conferences.

Louisville happens to be a very good team, and it happens to believe it’s playing for a wounded warrior. Tough combination. And a great story.

But like all great stories, there has to be a bad guy. Adidas created and sold $24.99 ‘‘Rise to the Occasion’’ T-shirts, which used Ware’s No. 5 in place of the ‘‘s’’ in ‘‘Rise.’’ The shoe company finally stopped selling them amid the outcry over a corporation profitting from a kid’s season-ending injury. That might give you the sense Adidas has a soul. Soles, yes; soul, no.

The Cardinals have won 15 consecutive games. It might suggest ease, but there was none of that Saturday.

‘‘We always try to do the spectacular,’’ Ware said.

For better or worse, he should know.

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