Faced With Sudden Horror, Louisville Cardinals Summon Grit To Reach Final Four

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Louisville players react to teammate Kevin Ware's gruesome leg injury against Duke. (SI)

Louisville players reacted to teammate Kevin Ware's gruesome leg injury against Duke. (SI)

INDIANAPOLIS -- For 13 minutes and 27 seconds, it was everything we wanted -- No. 1 Louisville and No. 2 Duke. The two best teams left in the tournament playing within one point of each other at 21-20, living up to all expectations of a title-worthy game in the Elite Eight.

And then guard Kevin Ware landed in front of the Cardinals' bench at the end of an arc that saw him fly at -- and miss -- a Tyler Thornton three. And that moment, was something we never, ever in our lives wanted to see. A snap. A lower right leg hanging at an impossible, gut-wrenching angle. A bone protruding in plain sight on the raised court, at eye level of Louisville's reserves.

Gasps. Louisville assistant Wyking Jones, leaving his seat at the end of the bench, running away, yelling "NO!." A whole arena sucking in air in collective horror. Bench players appearing to wretch into their hands. Chane Behanan, who grabbed Thornton's shot out of the net to inbound it, realizing what happened and collapsing to the floor. Russ Smith, doing the same near the three-point line, bawling. Cardinals trainer Fred Hina approaching Ware with a towel and draping it delicately over the shin, shielding it from view.

Luke Hancock, tapping Ware on the chest after he'd been helped onto a stretcher. Rick Pitino, wiping tears from his yes, calling his team over, saying, "Hey! He wants to talk to you." Ware, according to Pitino, telling them, "Don't worry about me. I'll be OK. You guys go win this thing."

How could they re-start the game? And so soon? The crowd chanted "KE-VIN WARE" as he was rolled off and put in an ambulance to nearby Methodist Hospital, where he was expected to be operated on Sunday evening.

Smith soon had to inbound a ball, choking back tears. Louisville had to somehow start playing again, minutes after the most traumatic sight of their basketball careers. The Cardinals had to go win this thing for Kevin Ware.

Somehow they took a 35-32 lead into halftime. Somehow their guards, Smith and Siva, took over the game in the second half and channeled all that emotion into an 85-63 rout of the second-best team left in the bracket. In a basketball game that was secondary, Louisville booked a trip to the Final Four and looked like the best team in the nation in the process.