John Clay: UofL plucks the Ducks, advances to Elite Eight

WILL FACE DUKE SUNDAY IN REGION FINAL

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 29, 2013 

  • NCAA TOURNAMENT

    Louisville vs. Wichita State/Kentucky winner

    When: TBA
    Where: Indianapolis
    Radio: WMKJ-FM 105.5 Lexington
    TV: TBA
    Records: Louisville 31-5 (15-3 AAC)

INDIANAPOLIS — There is a reason Rick Pitino is now 11-0 in regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

He knows it takes a village.

OK, we know Russ Smith was the singular star, the crazy-as-a-fox guard who slashed, dashed, bobbed and weaved to 31 points on Friday night as Louisville downed the Ducks of Oregon 77-69 at Lucas Oil Stadium to reach the Sunday finals of the Midwest Region.

"We didn't have it tonight," Pitino stated afterward of his sickly team, many of his players — including the hacking Smith — coughing and weezing from the common cold. "Without Russ we don't win this game."

And yet without a Louisville lift from a guard off the bench, the Cardinals might not have won this game, either.

With starting point guard Peyton Siva playing just 19 minutes because of foul trouble, scoring only four points and turning the basketball over four times, rangy reserve Kevin Ware helped save the night.

"I think Kevin really stepped up big," Siva said.

The sophomore from the Bronx scored a season-high 11 points, making five of seven shots from the floor. He turned the basketball over just once in 25 minutes.

"Smith made big plays," said Oregon Coach Dana Altman. "Ware hurt us also."

With Siva on the bench for a long period with two fouls, Ware scored nine points in the first half. Five of those came in a 14-1 run that knocked the Ducks off track.

"We were stuck in the mud the first 10 minutes," Altman said.

When Oregon finally found its feet and sliced the Louisville lead to single digits late in the first half, Ware scored back-to-back buckets to push the advantage to 40-29 with 1:38 left before intermission.

In the second half, when an Oregon spurt pulled the Pac-12 tournament champs within six points at 70-64, it was Ware that scored on a drive off the right wing.

"Kevin plays so hard and he just wants to do good, contribute, and he was very focused before the game," said his Russdiculous teammate Smith. "I spoke with him, and he was just telling me how well he's going to do. I mean, he was so (confident) today, and I'm so happy for him."

"Every time we needed a bucket, Kevin got it for us," Pitino said. "He bailed us out of some situations where it could have gone either way."

That's the thing about Louisville.

Give Pitino four days to prepare and he will use every bit of those four days to his best scouting advantage, thus his perfect mark in region semis. Friday night marked the first time that any team has come within less than 10 points of a Pitino product in the Sweet 16.

Give Pitino a season and the coach will produce strong subs.

Every coach wants a difference-making bench. Not every coach will take the risk of playing his bench. Depth doesn't happen overnight. Depth has to be developed.

Elsewhere, on a roster with guards such as Smith and Siva, Ware might have collected dust.

He was indefinitely suspended in late January, but has returned with a flourish, averaging 5.5 points over the last 14 games heading into Friday.

Then, on Friday, Ware helped make a difference when he was needed most.

"He was one of the poorest I've coached at running a pick and roll," Pitino said. "When we moved him to point, he got much more work at probing the lane and attacking the rim. And you see how long he is. And he's gotten so much better at the pick and roll."

And Louisville has reached its second consecutive Elite Eight, its third in the last five years.

"For Peyton to go out and Kevin Ware to step up like that," said Smith, the player who scored 31 points, "that just goes to show you how deep we are."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com Twitter: @johnclayiv Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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