ATLANTA (CBSNewYork/AP) — Kevin Ware couldn’t stay seated for this one. Even considering his devastating injury, Ware found the strength to cheer for his teammates.
Ware, who only six days ago had surgery to repair a gruesome compound fracture in his right leg, was on crutches and cheered as he followed his Louisville teammates onto the court for Saturday’s Final Four semifinal against Wichita State.
Ware remained seated for most of the game as Louisville trailed the Shockers.
Louisville was behind 47-35 midway through the second half. Ware clapped and cheered as the Cardinals rallied, finally taking the lead with 6:30 remaining on a 3-pointer by Luke Hancock.
Then, with the game tied 58-all with about 5 minutes to go, Ware stood and clapped and remained on his feet until the Cardinals took a 60-58 lead. Putting his weight on his good left leg, the sophomore guard stood again, using the elevated court for support, in the closing minutes of Louisville’s 72-68 win.
He stood again and smiled as Russ Smith sank two free throws with 4.9 seconds remaining.
Ware was missed by his Louisville teammates, who without him lacked the depth at guard to effectively press Wichita State for the whole game. The Cardinals had just enough to win without him.
There was support for Ware from fans and his teammates at the Georgia Dome.
Fans loudly cheered for Ware before the game as the guard, on crutches and surrounded by a crowd of photographers, followed his teammates onto the floor. He was positioned in a chair at the end of the bench, with his injured leg resting on a stack of towels atop another chair.
He was wearing his No. 5 jersey, red sneakers and red and black camouflage shorts.
Ware said he feels “great.”
“Obviously, it’s great to be home,” he said in a brief, pregame interview on CBS. “I’ve had a lot of support, and I really appreciate it.”
The top-seeded Cardinals’ backcourt was too thin without Ware, failing to dictate the pace on either end of the floor.
With Ware watching from beside the Louisville bench, Wichita State had four turnovers early in the game and didn’t give the ball away again until well past the midpoint of the second half. The Shockers finished with 11 turnovers.
That was not the routine for Louisville, which with Ware healthy ranked second in the nation in turnover margin while forcing almost 19 giveaways per game.
Ware signed with Louisville from Rockdale County High School, about 30 miles east of Atlanta.
Throughout much of a back-and-forth first half, Ware watched the game passively. He was unable to join the Cardinals during timeouts, with the team huddled on the raised court above the bench.
Ware’s right tibia snapped and broke through his skin in last Sunday’s Midwest Regional victory over Duke. The brutal injury ended his postseason as a player but didn’t end his role as a teammate. Before he was taken off the court that evening, he told the shocked Louisville players to “win this game.”
Louisville players paid tribute to Ware before their national semifinal, wearing T-shirts over their jerseys in pregame warmups with the words “Ri5e to the Occasion.” Louisville’s pep band also wore the T-shirts.
A Louisville fan held a sign reading “Wa5e them out!” Another fan held up a sign with Ware’s photo and the promise “I’ll be back.” Another sign: “Win for Ware.”
Ware had surgery Sunday night, was released two days later and on Wednesday flew with the team to Atlanta.
He also found time to read the top 10 list of “Thoughts going through Kevin Ware’s mind” (after he broke his leg) on David Letterman’s TV show. His No. 1 item: “At least my bracket’s not busted.”
Ware was boosted by strong support from fans and celebrities. He said he heard from some of his idols, including Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Charles Barkley. Even first lady Michelle Obama and the Rev. Jesse Jackson sent messages of support.
The surgery, travel and sudden celebrity combined to leave the sophomore drained by the time he reached Atlanta. Ware was so exhausted he fell asleep at the team’s dinner table Thursday night. That convinced team officials to decide he needed a full day of rest Friday so he would be able to attend Saturday’s game.
Ware’s reward was perhaps the best seat in the house for the first Final Four game. He was situated at the corner of the court, facing the action next to the end of the bench.
After returning to his spot after halftime, he leaned back in his chair, holding a sports drink and chatting with a Louisville cheerleader.
Were you surprised to see Wichita State hang with Louisville for as long as they did? Let us know…
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