ATLANTA --Star guard Russ Smith did his part for top-seeded Louisville. His main two supporters were a bit of surprise, though.
Walk-on Tim Henderson fueled a second-half rally with back-to-back 3-pointers and reserve Luke Hancock took over from there with a huge offensive game as the Cardinals survived Cinderella story Wichita State 72-68 Saturday night in the NCAA Men's Final Four at the Georgia Dome.
Louisville (33-5), on a 15-game winning streak and riding the emotion of playing for injured Rockdale County grad Kevin Ware, rallied from a 12-point second half deficit to reach its first championship game since 1986, when it won the NCAA title. It will meet the Michigan on Monday night for the ultimate prize.
"I don't think we could face a basketball team better than Wichita State, they are great," Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. "We had to win this game with our second unit. ... There's a reason our starters played poorly, it's because Wichita State is that good. We're just happy to be playing for the title."
Louisville's depth showed in the second-half comeback --it had a 34-9 edge in bench points --with Henderson and Hancock leading the way against the stubborn Shockers, a No. 9 seed with wins over No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State in its quadrant.
Trailing 47-35, Henderson made a 3-pointer with 13:00 remaining and added another one 42 seconds later. After the junior walk-on's two shots, which produced his only six points, the Cardinals kept coming.
"We're really happy for Tim, hitting those shots," Hancock said. "We kind of knew that was going to be our time. ... Once he hit those shots, I kind of knew that was going to be it. We were either going to make our run or it wasn't going to happen."
Hancock, a junior transfer from George Mason, scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half, including a big 3-pointer that put Louisville up 56-55 with 6:30 left. It was the Cardinals' first lead since late in the first half.
The teams went back-and-forth until a Chane Behanan putback with three minutes left was followed by a Hancock 3-pointer that put Louisville up 65-60.
The Cardinals never trailed again, making enough free throws down the stretch and securing a key jump ball in the final 10 seconds.
Smith scored 21 to lead Louisville, but he made only 5 of 12 free throws.
"I was actually waiting for our run and it happened," Smith said. "It just kept going and going. I knew it wasn't my night. I was just glad to everyone else kept it going for us."
Hancock was at the forefront.
The 6-foot-6 wing, whom Pitino calls "one of the best sixth men in basketball," made 6 of 9 shots and 3 of 5 shots from 3-point range.
"Luke's an excellent player and an excellent person," said Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, who struggled through a 1-for-9 shooting night. "He didn't get named team captain before he ever played a game here for nothing. He showed his leadership out there tonight. He showed his leadership when Kevin (Ware) got hurt (his gruesome broken leg in the quarterfinals). He really showed the world what he's capable of doing tonight."
Wichita State (30-9) also impressed in its bid for an upset.
Cleanthony Early led the Shockers with 24 points and 10 rebounds, while Bleckley County's Carl Hall (13 points) and Ron Baker (11 points) also scored in double figures.
"Louisville did a great job making plays when they needed to secure the victory," Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. "I'd like to thank (the players) for taking us on one incredible ride. They've gained fans' support and love across the world. They certainly proved not only do they belong, but they can play with the best."