John Clay: Pitino calms shocked Louisville players after horrific moment

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 31, 2013 

INDIANAPOLIS — Kevin Ware kept saying it.

Twelve times he said it.

Through the pain, he said it.

"I'll be fine," Kevin Ware said. "Go win the game."

He wasn't fine, of course. Louisville's sophomore guard was far from fine.

Six minutes before halftime of the Midwest Region final, he had suffered one of the more horrific injuries suffered in a sporting event on live TV and was on his back on the floor of Lucas Oil Arena.

"I went to help him up and then I saw his leg," his coach, Rick Pitino said. "I literally almost threw up."

"He was OK at first," Pitino said of Ware. "Then when he saw his leg, he screamed."

Once Ware was calmed and attended to by medics, though, he kept chanting the same message.

"Go win the game," he said. "Go win the game."

Once Pitino got his players calmed down, he took the message one step farther.

"We can't lose this game for Kevin," the coach told his players. "We just can't."

So they didn't. Up by a scant three points over Duke at the halftime, top-seeded Louisville collected itself inside its locker room, then blitzed the second-seeded Blue Devils in the second half for a runaway 85-63 victory and a second consecutive trip to the Final Four.

This achievement came under such surreal and emotional circumstances what with Ware, a valuable reserve guard who had starred off the bench with 11 points in Friday's region semifinal win over Colorado State, suffering such a gruesome leg injury right in front of the U of L bench.

"Yeah, I saw it," said U of L forward Stephan Van Treese, who was on the bench at the time. "It knocked me back just seeing it."

"I saw it," said teammate Luke Hancock, "but I don't want to go there. I don't want to talk about it."

"(Duke's Tyler) Thornton might have been open and I might have yelled and I saw Kevin go out there and challenge it," Russ Smith said. "When he landed, I heard it. Then I saw what happened come out, and I immediately just — I just like fell."

Pitino was seen wiping away tears. The Duke bench huddled. The Louisville players huddled. As the medical staff attended to Ware, Pitino met with Mike Krzyzewski at midcourt for a moment and the Duke coach returned to his bench with a shaken look.

"I didn't ever think in a million years I would see something like that," Smith said.

How do 18- to 22-year-olds bounce back from witnessing something like that? How do they re-focus in the biggest game of the year on the biggest stage?

"I had to take Chane (Behanan) out," Pitino said.

"At first, I couldn't do it," Behanan said. "Me and Kev are the closest. Everyone will tell you that. ... But then we had to get ourselves together and do it for him. We still had to play basketball."

The game tied at 42 with 16:18 to go, Louisville caught fire. Smith and Siva slashed to the bucket. Luke Hancock — yes, Luke Hancock — put the clamps on Duke's shooting star Seth Curry. Gorgui Dieng buried a couple of those mid-range jumpers he has mastered.

Pitino tried to deflect the credit afterward, saying his son Richard had given him a couple of suggestions Saturday on how to run the pick-and-roll against Duke. He praised Hancock's defense and Siva's poise.

He gave the most credit, however, to Ware.

"It was a gruesome sight, nothing like I've ever witnessed before in my life or a basketball game," Pitino said. "But I think when he kept saying that — we were in serious foul trouble — I don't think we could have gone in the locker room with a loss after seeing that."

So now Louisville is on to the Final Four in Atlanta.

You know who is from Atlanta, don't you?

Kevin Ware is from Atlanta, from Rockdale County High School in Conyers, Georgia.

Said Siva, "We're taking Kevin back home."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Twitter: @johnclayiv Blog:

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