Game-changer. A phrase heard and said by basketball fans after every game. Sometimes when the game flips, it is opinion; sometimes it’s so clear that it’s fact. The game changer in yesterday's Elite Eight game between Louisville and Duke was inarguable.
It was the heartbreak felt 'round the country. The hearts of witnesses on the court dropped instantly, and their bodies, weak with emotion, immediately followed. This was no normality. Players face injuries all the time. They receive applause limping to the bench, and speculation from fans about how long until their return. In this game, a player did not simply “go down.” No, in this game, Kevin Ware was not coming back up.
Ware, a sophomore guard, had a gruesome accident. After jumping to defend a three, he landed in a way that snapped his tibia, exposing the protruding bone to the stadium. He was down. So were his teammates.
Going into March, Pitino had said that the goal this year was to stay humble. Stay humble, stay selfless, and Louisville would win the national title. Kevin Ware knew this. He could have had plenty responses to his injury. He could have feverishly worried that he would never get to play again. He could have, while staring at his leg, screamed continuously until being carried off. Both would have been normal. But this team is far from usual; this team has a special bond, reflected by the focused young man lying on the court. Ware was the reminder of the team’s goal: humility.
He had the courage to tell Pitino “Just win the game. I’m OK.” He had the strength to relay that mantra onto his teammates, telling them multiple times, “Just win the game.” He had the selflessness to think about his team and not himself, when hundreds of thousands of witnesses couldn’t think about anything but him.
Ware was transported to an Indianapolis hospital, but the thought of him remained. It was undeniably a game-changer. One of two things could happen. That compound fracture, the frenzied emotions and the familial feelings between Kevin and his teammates could either make the team or break them.
The pure sickness that viewers still felt was reflected on the player’s faces as the ball was inbounded. The few remaining minutes in the first half were played with numb, shocked expressions. Up 35-32 at the half, the players entered the locker room, all viewers wanting to follow.
Smith repeated the message that he heard by the seasoned coach in a “short and sweet” manner after the game - get Kevin home. Not home to Louisville, but home to Atlanta, where No. 5 grew up. Win this game and advance to Atlanta -- get Kevin home.
The second half started, and which team the tragic game-changer would push to a win was still unclear. Chane Behanan showed enhanced effort for Ware right away and throughout the entire remaining half. Louisville broke away, but timidly, because of foul trouble, which allowed Duke to come creeping back. The Blue Devils were playing completely to get to the stripe, and fouls were drawn one after another against U of L. Suddenly, Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng all had three fouls.
It became clear with 13 minutes left that the Cardinals understood Ware’s message. The emotion would not serve as a retardant to the team, but the opposite. A 7-0 run happened next, largely because Siva was playing the best basketball that he had in all of March. Russ Smith suddenly refused to be stopped, but was stopping every play on the other end. Gorgui Dieng secured a double-double, having the toughness to make the team talk when he could have been somber and silent. The end buzzer was a bittersweet sound for the Louisville squad, who would win 85-63.
As was the case after being victorious at the Big East Tournament, the Cardinals did not cut down the nets. Maybe it was because they were after a set of nets in Atlanta; maybe it was because it would be inappropriate to cut down the nets without the selfless young man that inspired a win so great after a loss even greater.
For Louisville, the game-changer became a tournament changer, and now the team will play for something more than the ultimate prize of a National Title.
Win for Kevin.