Whether it was his poised playmaking against Colorado State or his timely shot-making against Oregon, Ware’s contribution in the 2013 NCAA tournament was instrumental in helping the No. 1 overall seed get to Atlanta.
With the 6’2" sophomore injured and on the sideline, Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino needed to find other contributors to make sure Louisville did not end up another victim of Wichita State's amazing run.
Fortunately for Pitino, unexpected players made unanticipated plays to help propel Louisville into Monday night’s championship game.
The Louisville bench mob was undeniably the X-factor in U of L’s come-from-behind victory against the Shockers. Not only did the Cardinals miss the spark that Ware would have provided, they were also missing Russ Smith's customary scoring explosion and Peyton Siva's usual floor leadership and defensive assault.
A punishing penetrator, Smith settled for launching jump shots, playing right into Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall’s game plan. Sure, he ended up with 21 points, but it took him 17 shots to get there. Siva went 1-of-9 from the field, including missing all five of his ill-advised shots from beyond the arc.
Smith and Siva also committed seven of the Cardinals' nine turnovers. Not exactly a shining moment for one of the best backcourts in college hoops.
All told, Pitino’s starters shot a tepid 10-of-33 (30.3 percent) for the game, so someone needed to step up.
Enter Louisville’s bench mob.
First, how huge was Tim Henderson? Until Saturday night, Henderson had only played a total of 88 minutes and hit four three-pointers the entire season.
The walk-on and Louisville native hit two huge threes to jump-start his team's comeback. Talk about clutch at a pivotal point in a remarkable game.
Isn't it awesome how March Madness can turn previous unknowns into overnight sensations...
Next, Luke Hancock has had an uneven season, falling short of some people’s high expectations. But the 6’6” wing came in to score 14 essential second-half points on his way to a huge 20-point performance.
As much as his point total was critical, when Hancock scored those points was just as crucial.
The George Mason transfer hit a go-ahead three-pointer with 6:30 left in the game, and he knocked down another from beyond the arc with just under two minutes to go to give Louisville a little separation.
In the final seconds of the game, Hancock made the first of two free throws. After missing the second, he tied up the Shockers' Ron Baker to return the ball to Louisville on possession. Luke Hancock was legitimately the most valuable player in this one.
Though Montrezl Harrell only played 11 total minutes, the uber-athletic freshman PF was 4-of-4 from the field for eight points and grabbed four important rebounds.
And junior center Stephan Van Treese gave Gorgui Dieng a 10-minute breather. During his short stint, SVT grabbed three rebounds, blocked one shot and nabbed a steal.
Bottom line: These four seldom-called-upon Cardinals combined for 34 points on 12-of-16 shooting (5-of-8 from downtown) and 13 rebounds and made all the difference in this national semifinal victory.
It's one of sport's oldest sayings that "teams win as a team and lose as a team." The Louisville Cardinals survived against Wichita State because of the timely and fortunate production of four second-teamers who were ready when their numbers were called.
Will they be needed on Monday night? Maybe. Will they be ready? After Saturday night, my answer is a resounding “yes.”