ATLANTA — The kid grew up shooting threes on 10 acres near Louisville, the Kentucky sky his backdrop. He couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else but his hometown university, the one he’d watched and cheered for all his life.
“It was just a dream to come play for them. I just chased my dream,” Tim Henderson said.
His other option? Indiana University Southeast.
Henderson — a junior walk-on — was the one keeping the Cardinals in Saturday night’s national semifinal at the Georgia Dome when things began to look dire. Louisville trailed Wichita State by 12 points with 13 minutes to go when Henderson hit.
The first 3-pointer seemed shaky. He wasn’t sure it would go in. It did. The next, 42 seconds later, felt “perfect, right away,” as Henderson said. Louisville was suddenly down by just 6 points, having regrouped. The Cardinals pulled out a 72-68 win that remained in doubt until the final seconds.
“The players said they weren’t surprised about him making those back-to-back threes,” coach Rick Pitino said. “I was shocked. Not shocked that he made ’em, just that he had the gumption to take them.”
Louisville needed Henderson in the wake of the injury to guard Kevin Ware last Sunday. Pitino had said on Thursday, “He’s got to do the best job he can do.”
“It just hurt,” Cleanthony Early, who led the Shockers with 24 points and 10 rebounds, said of Henderson’s threes. “We had a defensive plan to just be in the gaps and force them to shoot those shots. They just happened to knock them down.”
For Louisville, it was time to take advantage. It was their moment.
“Once he hit those shots, I knew this was it,” Luke Hancock said. “We were going to make our run now or it wasn’t going to happen.”
Hancock, who scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half, and Henderson helped rally Louisville when Wichita State and the Georgia Dome and the nation had started to believe that the ninth-seeded Shockers might be able to beat the Cardinals (34-5).
Up until that point, the Shockers had barely made a mistake, going 26 minutes without a turnover against a team that feeds off them. Wichita State was playing exactly the way it needed to in order to beat Louisville — until it all unraveled. With 6:43 to go the Shockers had committed just four turnovers. They finished with 11.
“It’s tough being able to deal with our pressure, trying to guard us at the same time,” Ware said. “It takes a toll. When they started turning it over, when they were really turning it over consistently, we smelled blood in the water.”
Even after losing that 12-point advantage, Wichita State (30-9) still had a chance. There were less than 10 seconds to go when Hancock missed a free throw with his team up by 3. Wichita State’s Ron Baker got the rebound, but Hancock got a hand on the ball. A quick whistle resulted in a jump ball, and the possession arrow favored the Cardinals.
“I was forced to dribble the ball because I lost my balance,” Baker said. “I thought the ball was loose before the whistle was blown.”
Louisville had fought its way back into the game by using its press and its talent, even with Peyton Siva doing a disappearing act for much of the contest. Despite foul trouble — Russ Smith picked up an early three, Gorgui Dieng an early four — Louisville stayed aggressive in the face of Wichita State’s attack.
“They do that to everyone,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “We were looking really good there for 32 minutes or whatever it was. We just needed to be a little more secure with the ball.”
Louisville needed some help at the foul line from Smith, an 82 percent free throw shooter in the regular season who had missed his first four foul shots of the game. He made two with 45 seconds to go, two more with 30 ticks left, and one final shot to go up 4 with five seconds left. Smith finished with 21 points.
That was all that Louisville would need. Henderson, the hometown kid forced into service after Ware broke his leg, is headed for one more game this season, a chance to help his team in the national title game Monday night against Michigan.
“I can’t put it into words,” Henderson said. “It hasn’t hit me yet.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.