Tears are part of the NCAA tournament. They flow when teams win and flow when they lose.
The tears shed for Louisville guard Kevin Ware on Sunday, though, were different.
They almost spontaneously gushed in response to Ware’s gruesome leg break during Sunday’s Midwest Regional final game against Duke.
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino was caught on TV wiping his eyes.
“I literally almost threw up,” he said after the game.
Duke players, coaches and America’s viewers were almost equally stunned.
You wished, for that moment, instant replay had never been invented.
Some of Ware’s disbelieving teammates collapsed on the court.
“I never thought in a million years I’d see anything like that,” Louisville guard Russ Smith said. “I was completely devastated.”
Reaction came in real-time cyberspace.
Former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who once had his leg snapped by Lawrence Taylor on “Monday Night Football,” tweeted that “my heart goes out to Kevin Ware.”
Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers football player paralyzed a few years ago against Army, tweeted that he was “sending my prayers up for you man.”
Ware’s injury was a lousy way to cap the last game on Easter weekend, yet, incredibly, Louisville turned the shock into inspiration.
Ware told teammates on his way to an ambulance to “just win the game, just win the game!”
Ware is from Atlanta, the site of next week’s Final Four.
“We had to do this for Kevin,” senior guard Peyton Siva said. “Coach told us we needed to get him back home.”
Louisville left Ware’s seat vacant for the rest of the game and then turned the screws on Duke in a relentless second half that restored the tournament to its purest, unbridled, emotional form.
The Cardinals held Duke scoreless for an eight-minute second-half stretch.
Siva and Smith raced like jets up and down the court and Gorgui Dieng, the team’s 7-foot center, even knocked down a couple of outside jump shots.
“They wear you down,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Those two guards set an amazing pace.”
Duke never had a chance. The final score was 85-63.
And so, uneasily, the Final Four was set.
Louisville, the No.1 overall seed left standing, will face ninth-seeded Wichita State in one national semifinal Saturday in Atlanta.
Two fourth-seeded teams, Syracuse and Michigan, will play in the other Final Four game.
It marks Louisville’s first trip since last year, Syracuse’s first trip in 10 years, Michigan’s first trip since the Fab Five in 1993 and Wichita State’s first since 1965.
Of the four finalists, only Louisville won its conference title.
The four regional final games were really not that close, the winners moving on by the average winning margin of 15.5 points.
The Missouri Valley and Big Ten conferences each advanced one team to the final weekend while the Big East and Atlantic Coast can fight over the other two.
Syracuse and Louisville are lame-duck Big East members on their way to the ACC.
The tournament has had its share of take-away highlights. La Salle emerged from the “play-in” game to reach the Sweet 16, as did Oregon, which proved its No. 12 seeding was the selection committee’s biggest mistake.
No. 14 Davidson will kick itself for letting a win over No. 3 Marquette slip away.
Kansas blew all of its 10-point lead with 2 minutes 19 seconds left in the South Regional semis, choosing not to foul Michigan’s Trey Burke on the three-point attempt he made to send the game to overtime.
Interestingly, in the 2008 title game, Memphis blew a nine-point lead to Kansas with 2:12 left and didn’t foul late with a three-point lead.
Mario Chalmers hit the game-tying three and Kansas won in overtime.
Never, ever let your opponent tie the game with a three-pointer … when will people learn?
UCLA and Minnesota played an unusual first-round game in which the winning and losing coach got fired. New Mexico’s coach lost to No. 14 Harvard and got hired by UCLA.
The heroes of the fortnight were clearly the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, who became the first No. 15 team to reach the Sweet 16 after wins over Georgetown and San Diego State.
“We made history,” guard Brett Comer said after his team’s round-of-16 loss to Florida. “There will be some memories that will never be forgotten.”
The collective star of the tournament so far is defense.
Syracuse’s zone is the Bermuda Triangle in that opposing offenses tend to get swallowed up.
The Orange’s 2-3 formation held Marquette to 39 points in the East Regional final, a total more fitting for the regional final of 1944.
You want the stat of the tournament? Syracuse’s four opponents — Montana, California, Indiana and Marquette — combined to shoot 15.4% (14 for 91) on their three-point attempts.
“Our defense has been tremendous in the tournament and our offense has been just enough,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said.
Wichita State-Louisville could end up a 50-48 final. Wichita State held its four NCAA opponents to a shooting average of 34.4%.
“Man, they D’d us up,” Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said after his team’s West Regional loss to the Shockers. “Thirty one percent for the game, you’re not winning a game like that.”
Duke shot 36.5% against Louisville’s defensive pile of barbed wire and Florida shot 41% in its loss to Michigan.
“People say they’re just an offensive team,” Florida Coach Billy Donovan said of Michigan. “They play good defense.”
Michigan’s offense against Syracuse’s defense is one of many story lines heading into Atlanta.
None will probably be able to top who, and what, Louisville is playing for now.
–Chris Dufresne, Los Angeles Times