Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA - After dominating much of its competition in four NCAA tournament games, Louisville, the top overall seed in the field, got its stiffest test from an unlikely opponent in tonight's national semifinals.
Though the Cardinals clearly did not play at their best against ninth-seeded Wichita State, they got key contributions from two reserves - Luke Hancock and walk-on Tim Henderson - to rally from an 12-point second-half deficit and hold off the Shockers, 72-68, at the Georgia Dome.
Making its second consecutive appearance in the Final Four, Louisville advanced to Monday's national title game to play the winner of the Syracuse-Michigan semifinal.
Delivering injured guard Kevin Ware, who watched the game from the bench, a national championship has been a rallying cry for Louisville and its fans since the Atlanta native broke his leg in the Elite Eight against Duke. But the game against the Shockers turned out to be more competitive than most college basketball fans expected.
Against the Shockers, a physical and veteran team that had already knocked off Gonzaga and Ohio State, the Cardinals battled adversity throughout. Only when Hancock pumped his fist after a three-pointer with two minutes to play - which gave the Cardinals a five-point advantage - did they appear to have any discernable advantage.
Wichita State still had a chance in the final seconds -- trailing by three points -- but Hancock locked up Ron Baker, and officials gave the ball to Louisville because of the possession arrow.
Louisville, which won its 15th consecutive game, authored an uneven performance from the start.
Russ Smith, who was an 80 percent free throw shooter in his three-year college career, made just 1 of his first 6 free throw attempts. But as shaky as Smith looked offensively, his four fellow starters struggled even more.
Wichita State pushed the lead to 11 points a little more than five minutes into the second half, when a steal by point guard Malcolm Armstead led to a layup in transition for Tekele Cotton.
Without Ware, Coach Rick Pitino called upon walk-on Henderson to provide some depth in the backcourt. All Henderson did was sink back-to-back three-pointers to slice the deficit to six points with 12:18 remaining. Henderson had made four three-pointers all season before getting hot in the second half.
Louisville's Hancock buried a three-pointer to give the Cardinals a brief one-point advantage. But after a steal by Carl Hall, Wichita State's Cleanthony Early put the Shockers back on top with a three-point play.
Throughout the Georgia Dome, fans held signs supporting Ware. But as united as Louisville looked in the second half against Duke, the Cardinals looked anxious and tight from the game's start tonight.
Wichita State jumped out to an 8-0 lead. And without made baskets, Louisville had few opportunities to set up its trademark full-court press. The Shockers turned the ball over just four times in the first half.
And because the Shockers remained competitive on the boards, they managed to hold a one-point halftime lead despite shooting just 32.1 percent in the half.
The Cardinals went into the locker room trailing for one of the few times during the NCAA tournament. But they found a way to hang on, putting themselves one victory away from their first national title since 1986.