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By Jesse Kramer
The last Cinderella of the 2013 NCAA Tournament was eliminated in Saturday’s first Final Four game. In the first national semifinal in Atlanta, No. 1 seed Louisville knocked off No. 9 seed Wichita State, 72-68. The Shockers, who were overshadowed in this year’s tournament by Florida Gulf Coast, which became the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16, knocked off the top two seeds in the West Region, Gonzaga and Ohio State, to reach this point. But on Saturday, they lost control of a 12-point lead in the second half against the top-seeded Cardinals.
Louisville took its first lead of the second half on a Luke Hancock three-pointer with 6:31 left, and although Wichita State battled back, the Cardinals took the lead for good on Chane Behanan’s putback at the 3:03 mark.
The Shockers impressively handled Louisville’s defensive pressure for most of the game. They had a 26-minute stretch with no turnovers, but when Louisville made its final run they coughed up the ball a few times. In the final seven minutes, Wichita State committed seven of its 11 turnovers.
This was Louisville’s least impressive performance during the tournament, but it stepped up its defense and made some timely shots to keep national championship hopes alive. Russ Smith, who has been a driving force in the Cardinals’ run to Atlanta, struggled for most of the game. Although he scored 21 points, he shot 6-of-17 from the field and 5-of-12 from the foul line. He also had five turnovers.
The absence of Kevin Ware, who suffered that brutal leg injury in the Elite Eight, clearly hurt the Cardinals. When Smith and Peyton Siva needed a rest, Louisville was forced to go to Tim Henderson, who had played only 3.5 minutes per game this season.
Henderson, who saw the court for 10 minutes, made the most of his boost in playing time by knocking down a pair of three-pointers to halve Wichita State’s 12-point lead in the second half.
George Mason Luke Hancock became the star of the night with 20 points, including six in the final three minutes. He also forced a jump ball in the final seconds to ice the win for Louisville. In his time at George Mason, Hancock showed that he possesses the clutch gene.
Now that his season is completed, it’s time to recognize that Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall performed as good a coaching job as anyone in college basketball this season. Along with guys like Jim Larranaga (Miami) and Jim Crews (Saint Louis), Marshall is deserving of a Coach of the Year award. The Shockers, who were a No. 5 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, lost all five starters. This season, with almost a completely new group, they battled a bunch of injuries early in the season, climbed into the top 15 of the AP Top 25, and then lost the Missouri Valley championship to Creighton. They became only the fifth team seeded No. 9 or lower to reach the Final Four, and had they held on against Louisville they would have been the first such team to reach the national championship.
With this win, Louisville advances to the 2013 NCAA Tournament championship game, where it will play the winner of the second Final Four game between Syracuse and Michigan. The Cardinals split the regular season series with Syracuse but then beat the Orange in the Big East championship game, 78-61. Michigan would be a tough matchup for Louisville, as the Wolverines take excellent care of the basketball and rarely turn it over. They already easily handled VCU, another teams that forces lots of turnovers with its defensive pressure, in the third round of this year’s NCAA tournament.