ATLANTA — Rick Pitino couldn’t get the words out of his mouth fast enough.
The Louisville coach didn’t even wait for the question after the Cardinals rallied from a 12-point deficit to defeat Wichita State 72-68 on Saturday night in the Final Four semifinals.
“Our bench won this game for us tonight,” Pitino said.
Starting guard Russ Smith did what Russ Smith does best, although he did have to take 17 shots to make 6. His 21 points gives him a tournament-leading 125 points in five games.
“But our other four starters had the worst night of the season,” Pitino said.
They scored a collective 17 points and combined to hit 4 of 17 shots.
So the Cardinals are going into Monday night’s national championship game in the Georgia Dome because of reserves Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson.
Hancock stung the Shockers the most, scoring 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Henderson added a 2-of-3 night from beyond the arc.
“Look, Wichita State is a great team,” Hancock said. “We needed some other guys to step up or we wouldn’t be playing Monday.”
Louisville’s backcourt was short-handed because top reserve guard Kevin Ware broke his leg in the Elite Eight victory over Duke.
“Tim and I knew we had to step up and fill some holes,” Hancock said.
His five straight points, including a three, when the lead was being tossed back and forth was key to the Cardinals finishing strong.
But Hancock’s hustle play in the final seconds wiped away WSU’s last hope. He missed the second of two free throws with nine seconds remaining, leaving the Cardinals up 71-68.
WSU’s Ron Baker grabbed the rebound, then lost his balance and had to put the ball on the floor. Hancock immediately dived in and tied Baker up.
The possession arrow was in Louisville’s favor and Smith was soon hitting a clinching free throw.
All of that could be expected of Hancock, a junior who has had plenty of big moments coming off the bench.
The junior walk-on saw a season-high 10 minutes because of Ware’s injury. He made the most of it, drilling his two three-pointers at crucial at crucial spots.
“Tim hits shots all the time — in practice,” Hancock said. “It wasn’t shocking for us to see that in the game. He just needed the chance.”
Henderson knew he would be needed. He talked about the chance earlier this week as a “dream come true.”
Now, after living that dream, he said, “I still fee like I’m dreaming.”
Henderson said Pitino reminded him the last few days to play like he practices.
“I hit threes in practice all the time,” Henderson said, “so I know I could do it. It was just a matter of keeping my emotions in check.”
That he did.
“I don’t know what it was,” Henderson said, “but I was calm. It felt like there was no one around me. It was just 10 guys out there playing basketball.”