ATLANTA — Junior guard Russ Smith looked at the scoreboard, then at the clock, then over at the bench.
Louisville needed a run, but he had no idea where it was going to come from. The starters were struggling, the fouls were piling up and the only lift injured Kevin Ware could give the top-seeded Cardinals was an emotional one.
“It was like, ‘Man,’” Smith said. “I was actually waiting for our run. And it happened. Luke exploded. That was actually what I was waiting for. Then Chane exploded. Then Peyton made a big layup. Then Tim Henderson. It just kept going and going.”
And Louisville rode it all the way to the title game.
Luke Hancock scored 20 points off the bench, Henderson sparked a second-half rally with a pair of monster 3s and Louisville reminded everyone it can grind it out, too, advancing to the NCAA title game Saturday night after escaping with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State.
Louisville will play Michigan for the national title Monday night. The Cardinals (34-5) have had this game in their sights since losing to Kentucky in last year’s Final Four, and they got added motivation after Ware’s tibia snapped during last weekend’s Midwest Regional final, the bone poking through the skin.
Ware was on his feet when the final buzzer sounded, grinning and throwing his arms into the air.
“We’ve got to bring our best game,” Ware said. “It’s the last game of the season. If we lose, everything we’ve worked for just goes down the drain. That’s the last thing we want right now.”
Michigan 61, Syracuse 56: A pair of Michigan backups helped loosen up that Syracuse zone with their outside shooting, then an all-but-forgotten big man made the defensive play of the night.
Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht lifted the Wolverines with some early 3-pointers, and Jordan Morgan drew a crucial offensive foul in the final minute to help Michigan hold off Syracuse.
Star point guard Trey Burke was held to seven points, but the Wolverines got contributions throughout the lineup.
LeVert and Albrecht — hardly the team’s top options offensively — combined for four 3-pointers in the first half. When Syracuse rallied, it was Morgan who helped hold off the Orange. Syracuse trailed 58-56 when Brandon Triche drove to the basket. Morgan, who hurt his ankle at midseason and ceded playing time to Mitch McGary, was waiting to draw the offensive foul with 19.2 seconds left.
Syracuse had another chance with Michigan up three, but the Wolverines got a stop, and it was Morgan who capped the victory with a breakaway dunk.
Michigan already passed one big test in this NCAA tournament when the Wolverines picked apart Virginia Commonwealth’s press on the first weekend. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone figured to pose a different set of challenges — but Michigan has a deep roster of shooters.