Louisville’s unsung heroes deliver in win over Wichita State

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ATLANTA — On a team that includes Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan, how many people would have guessed that the two most important players for Louisville in its 72-68 win over Wichita State in the Final Four on Saturday would be Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson.

It’s fitting, really.

The Cardinals knocked off the Shockers, a team made up of misfits that have spent their career being under-recruited and looked over, on a night when their two castoffs did the heavy-lifting.

Wichita State looked like they were pulling away. After the Shockers got an offensive rebound off of a missed free throw, Cleanthony Early, who finished with 24 points, buried a three from the left wing to give Gregg Marshall’s club a 47-35 lead. Louisville was rattled. Wichita State had done a terrific job of cutting off penetration and forcing the Cardinals into jump shots, and their struggles on the offensive end of the floor extended onto the defensive end as well.

There was no energy in that Louisville press. They hadn’t forced a turnover in almost 20 minutes of game-time. The Shockers were in complete control.

And then Hancock found Henderson wide-open in the corner for a three. 42 seconds later, after Ehimen Orukpe airballed the front-end of a one-and-one, Smith drew a defender and found Henderson.

Same spot.

Wide open.

Same result.

Henderson’s six points in 42 seconds gave Louisville life. He’s a walk-on. He scored three points in all of Big East play. He’s only set foot on the court because Kevin Ware couldn’t.

“We had a defensive game-plan to just be in the gaps and force them to shoot those shots,” Early said. It worked for the first 27 minutes until Henderson broke through. “He just happened to knock them down.”

From there, it was the Luke Hancock Show. On Louisville’s next two possessions, Hancock sliced through the Wichita State defense, finishing a pair of layups at the rim. It was the first time that Louisville had really found a way to get into the teeth of the Shocker defense.

With 6:45 left in the game, Wichita State finally committed their first turnover of the second half — and first since the 13:04 mark of the first half. In the scramble for the loose ball, Hancock found himself left alone in the corner, burying a three to give the Cardinal’s their first lead since of the second half. Wichita State kept things interesting, trading buckets and never falling behind by more than one possession until Hancock drilled another three with 2:06 left in the game. With six seconds left in the game, Hancock missed a free throw that would have put the Cardinals up by four points, but instead of giving up on the rebound, he forced a jump-ball with Wichita State’s Ron Baker, giving the Cardinals the ball back.

“He didn’t get named captain for nothing before he even played a game for us,” Siva said. “He showed his leadership out there tonight.”

Hancock is a transfer from George Mason. He’s had an up-and-down season as he’s dealt with the recovery from shoulder surgery.

There is always a run coming from Louisville. It’s what their known for. It’s why they’re so successful. Once that press gets going, it snowballs. The Cardinals forced five turnovers in a seven possession stretch at one point, and that just so happened to coincide with their comeback.

But the spark that set the run off didn’t come from any of Louisville’s all-americans or future NBA Draft picks.

It came from a pair of guys that refer to themselves as the zone-busters in practice because of their ability to shoot.

“Tim hits shots all the time,” Hancock said. “It wasn’t shocking for us for him to knock down shots like that.”

He’s more than just a zone-buster now.

He’s a run-starter.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.