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The Louisville Cardinals.
While the other No. 1s have fallen by the wayside, the top overall seed romped to the Georgia Dome with four dominant wins in the NCAA tournament. And, if the Cardinals need any extra motivation, they've got it.
Sophomore guard Kevin Ware, who played his high school ball in the Atlanta suburbs, sustained a gruesome injury in Sunday's regional final against Duke. Before he headed off to surgery, he courageously urged his teammates to finish the job.
Now, they would like nothing more than to win it all for Ware.
"We talked about it every timeout, `Get Kevin home,'" coach Rick Pitino said.
Next stop, the A-T-L, where three rather unlikely teams will be looking to knock off the mighty Cardinals.
First up, the surprising Shockers from Wichita State in the semifinals Saturday. The No. 9 seed has already pulled off two major upsets, but this would be the biggest stunner yet.
If Louisville makes it through to next Monday night's title game, the opponent would be either Michigan, sporting a new group of Fab Wolverines, or Syracuse, which comes at you with the stingiest zone defense in college basketball. The two No. 4 seeds will meet in the other semifinal game.
All are underdogs to the Cardinals, who are winning by an average of nearly 22 points a game in the tournament.
"I thought we had a chance there, and then boom," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who watched Louisville pull away for an 85-63 victory in the Midwest Regional final. "That's what they do to teams. They can boom you."
In the other game Sunday, Michigan captured the South Regional with a 79-59 rout of Florida, leading from the opening tip. A day earlier, Syracuse shut down Marquette 55-39 to win the East Regional, while Wichita State punched its Final Four ticket with a 70-66 upset of Ohio State out West.
In the final year of the Big East before it splits into two new conferences, Louisville and Syracuse provided a fitting send-off to a league that quickly became a basketball powerhouse after it was founded in 1979.
Before it goes, this version of the Big East has a shot at one more national title.
With two teams, no less.
The Cardinals - who, like Syracuse, are moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference - shook off the incredible shock of Ware's injury with about 6 1/2 minutes to go before halftime and blew out the second-seeded Blue Devils. The sophomore snapped his lower right leg after coming down awkwardly while defending a 3-point shot. The injury occurred right in front of the Louisville bench, where the players gasped and turned away quickly at the sight of Ware's dangling leg, which was broken in two places.
Russ Smith collapsed onto the floor, along with several players, and was crying as doctors attended to Ware. While Ware was loaded onto a stretcher, the Cardinals gathered at midcourt until Pitino called them over, saying the injured player wanted to talk to them before he left.
"All he kept saying - and remember, the bone is 6 inches out of his leg - all he's yelling is, `Win the game! Win the game!'" Pitino said. "I've never seen that in my life. We're all distraught and all he's saying is, `Win the game.' Kevin is a special young man."
This is a special team. Smith scored 23 points. Gorgui Dieng had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
The Cardinals (33-5) simply refused to lose, breaking open a game that was tied at 42. They dove on the floor for loose balls. They pounded the boards ferociously. They contested every shot and swarmed around the Blue Devils like they had an extra player on the court.
In a sense, they did, as Pitino reminded them during every timeout.
"This is a gritty bunch," the coach said. "From the beginning of the year to now, they've not had a bad game. I'm really proud of these guys."
Wichita State was the most improbable team to advance. The Shockers lived up to their nickname in the West, knocking off top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round and No. 2 seed Ohio State in the regional final Saturday night.
Wichita State (30-8) built a 20-point lead on the Buckeyes, then managed to hang on through a nerve-racking final five minutes to pull off the latest upset in a tournament filled with them.
That other team from Kansas isn't content yet.
"It feels very good," said Cleanthony Early, a junior forward who, like most of his teammates, was passed over by higher-profile programs, "but we understand the fact that we've got to stay hungry and humble, because we've got two more games left to really be excited about."
Old-timers might remember Louisville and Wichita State as former conference rivals. The Cardinals were a member of the Missouri Valley Conference in the 1960s and `70s, which meant annual games against the Shockers.
Louisville holds a 19-5 edge in the series, but the teams haven't played since 1976.
Michigan (30-7) is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five era of the early 1990s, when the Wolverines lost in back-to-back national title games.
This team has the same youthful feel, led by sophomore Trey Burke, the Big Ten player of the year, and three freshmen starters. They were downright fabulous against third-seeded Florida, never seriously threatened after scoring the first 13 points.
"A lot of guys said we were really young and that we couldn't get here," said Burke, who scored 15 points against Florida but really came through in an improbable comeback against top-seeded Kansas in the regional semifinals. "We're here now and we still have unfinished business."
One of the freshmen, Nik Stauskas, hit all six of his 3-pointers and scored 22 points to lead the Wolverines. Another of the youngsters, 6-foot-10 Mitch McGary, chipped in with 11 points and nine rebounds.
Florida became the first team to lose three straight regional finals.
The Wolverines will have their work cut out against Syracuse (30-9), a team that has totally stuffed its NCAA opponents with a stifling zone defense. The Orange are headed to their first Final Four since winning it all in 2003 largely because they have allowed fewer than 46 points a game in the tournament.
Syracuse leads the series against Michigan 8-5. Their last meeting was Nov. 26, 2010, when the Orange prevailed 53-50 in the Legends Classic at Atlantic City, N.J.
The schools have never met in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse has been like an octopus when it settles in around the its own lane - shutting off passing routes, preventing anyone from penetrating, yet still managing to defend the 3-point line with quickness and long arms. Montana, California, top-seeded Indiana and Marquette combined to make just under 29 percent from the field (61 of 211) and a paltry 15.4 percent (14 of 91) outside the arc.
"We were as active these two games here in Washington as we've ever been," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after Saturday's win over league rival Marquette, which is headed to a new version of the Big East next season. "I just really can't say enough about how good these guys played on the defensive end of the court."
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Dustin Brown had a goal and an assist, and Trevor Lewis and Justin Williams also scored for the Kings. Jarret Stoll assisted on Lewis' goal, giving him 100 with Los Angeles.
The win gives the Kings only their second sweep of a season series against St. Louis after first doing it in 2005-06. Los Angeles has beaten the Blues eight straight times, including a 4-0 sweep in last season's Western Conference semifinals.
Vladimir Tarasenko scored both goals and Jaroslav Halak made 36 saves for the Blues, who have lost four of their last five.
Richards capitalized when Halak gave up a rebound on a soft shot. The puck went to the right side of the net, but came back in front and Richards eventually jammed it in for his 10th goal.
Williams closed the door on an empty-netter with 1:16 remaining.
Tarasenko tied it for the second time when he shoved home a puck that had drifted through Quick at 6:44 of the third period to make it 2-2. The Blues rookie had also knotted the score at 1 when he put his own rebound past Quick at 10:55 of the second period.
Lewis made it 2-1 at 12:49 of the second when he corralled a bouncing pass from Stoll to the right of the Blues' goal and sneaked a backhander past Halak.
Notes: Blues G Brian Elliott, who is 3-6-1 with a 3.56 goals against average and has not played since March 5, agreed to go to Peoria of the AHL for conditioning. Elliott led the NHL in goals against average last season (1.56) and helped the team win the Jennings Trophy. ... Anze Kopitar had an assist, giving him 22 points in his last 19 games. ... Tarasenko's first goal snapped an 0-for-12 streak on the power play for St. Louis.
The No. 4-seeded Orange won't have that element in their favor in the NCAA tournament's East Regional final.
That's because Syracuse will face a familiar foe Saturday with a Final Four berth at stake: Big East rival Marquette, the East's No. 3 seed.
"We're much better when we play teams that don't know us," Boeheim said. "Marquette knows us. They know how to play against us, so it will be very difficult."
Paced by Michael Carter-Williams' 24 points, Syracuse reached the round of eight with some dominant defense during a 61-50 victory over top-seeded Indiana in the regional semifinals Thursday night. The Orange forced 19 turnovers, blocked 10 shots, and limited the Hoosiers to 33 percent shooting while holding them to their lowest scoring output of the season.
"Our perimeter defense was tremendous," Boeheim said in an arena hallway afterward, his arms crossed across his purple tie, the way he stood for much of the lopsided game. "This is one of our best defensive teams ever. They play it well."
There's an understatement.
"In practice, it's hard to simulate how tall they really are," said Indiana's Jordan Hulls, a 6-foot senior who was at least 4 inches shorter than the players usually guarding him and went 0 for 6 on 3-point tries. "We had the right game plan. We prepared really well. But we had too many turnovers."
Three more, in fact, than shots made (16).
"Let's face facts. We haven't seen a zone like that," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "They're very good. They're where they're at for a reason."
Next up is Marquette (26-8), which beat No. 2 seed Miami 71-61 in Thursday's first game in Washington.
Syracuse (29-9), heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference this summer, lost at Marquette 74-71 during the Big East regular season on Feb. 25.
That was part of a stretch in which Syracuse lost four of five games. Since then, though, the Orange are 6-1, with the only loss coming against Louisville in the conference tournament final. In that game, Syracuse fell apart in the second half, going from a 16-point lead to trailing by 18 in a 13-minute span.
The Orange built an 18-point lead in the first half against Indiana, and while that dwindled to six early in the second half, Boeheim's squad never let it get closer than that.
The last time these two schools faced off in the NCAA tournament, Indiana won the 1987 championship on a late shot - and it took winning the 2003 national title with Carmelo Anthony for Boeheim to get over it. That decade-old group was also Syracuse's last visit to the Final Four.
Less than a half-minute into Thursday's game, as Indiana star Victor Oladipo headed to the free-throw line, the arena's overhead scoreboard showed a replay of "The Shot," as it's come to be known - Keith Smart's baseline jumper in the final seconds that lifted Bob Knight's Hoosiers past Boeheim's Orange.
Boeheim entered Thursday with 50 wins in the tournament, fourth-most in history, and more than 900 victories overall, with so much of that success built on his unusual zone defense, 40 minutes of a puzzle for opponents to try and solve.
Indiana (29-7), like most teams outside the Big East, isn't used to seeing that sort of thing, and it showed right from the outset. Didn't matter that Indiana ranked third in the country this season in scoring, putting up 79.5 points per game - and never fewer than 56 - while making 48.6 percent of its shots.
"Not too many teams are used to our zone," said Brandon Triche, who scored 14 points Thursday and whose uncle, Howard, was on Boeheim's 1987 squad. "That's what we play. Other teams that play zone, they (also) play man, they switch up defenses. But our main (thing) is zone. ... We're very long, and we're very active, and when we're active like we were today, we're hard to score on."
Cody Zeller was held to 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting. Oladipo scored 16 for Indiana, none easily.
"Credit them," Oladipo said, his head bowed and voice hushed. "They did a great job with their zone. They're well-coached."
Boeheim looked on calmly, occasionally resting his chin on his right fist while seated. He seemed something like an interested observer rather than active participant in the proceedings.
Sure must have liked what he saw, though.
"They never really succeeded in getting the ball in the right places," Boeheim said about the Hoosiers. "And it's not that easy, but it can be done. But they didn't know how to do that."
JUPITER, FL (AP) - Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals have agreed to a new contract that guarantees the Cardinals' ace an additional $97.5 million over five years through 2018.
Wainwright had been eligible to become a free agent after the World Series.
The new agreement, first reported by FoxSports.com, was confirmed by a person familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because it had not yet been announced. The Cardinals scheduled a news conference today at their spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla.
A 31-year-old right-hander, Wainwright was 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA last year after missing the Cardinals' World Series championship season in 2011 because of elbow surgery.
Wainwright was 20-11 with a 2.42 ERA in 2010 and was an NL All-Star.
Freese joined St. Louis closer Jason Motte on the DL. The Cardinals earlier this spring lost shortstop Rafael Furcal for the year with an elbow injury and pitcher Chris Carpenter with a potential career-ending nerve injury.
Utilityman Matt Carpenter is expected to start the season at third in place of Freese, the 2011 World Series and NL championship series MVP. Freese, who will be 30 next month, hit .293 with career best of 20 homers, 79 RBIs and 144 games last season.
Carpenter played at five positions last year and added second base this spring. He batted .294 with six homers and 46 RBIs in 296 at-bats last year. Carpenter, 27, has 26 career starts in two seasons at third.
Infielder Ryan Jackson was recalled from Triple-A Memphis. Left-hander Sam Freeman was optioned to Triple-A.
In 12 spring training games, Freese was batting .267 with two home runs and five RBIs. The move was retroactive to Saturday
Jackson was optioned to the minors on March 17 after appearing in 17 spring training games. Freeman made two exhibition appearances.
The officials spoke on of condition of anonymity because Lohse still has to pass a physical.
Lohse, 34, is coming off the greatest season of his career, dominating the National League Central for the second consecutive year. He went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA and had the Cardinals within one game of the World Series. He finished seventh in the National League Cy Young balloting.
After Larkin's first field goal in about 9 1/2 minutes, D.J. Richardson missed a 3-pointer. In the fight for the rebound, the ball appeared to ricochet off the hands of Miami's Kenny Kadji out of bounds. But the Hurricanes kept the ball, and Durand Scott made two free throws after that.
Miami (29-6) is in the round of 16 for only the second time in school history. The Hurricanes play Marquette (25-8) in Washington D.C. on Thursday night.
Larkin, the only non-senior starter for Miami and the ACC player of the year, finished with 17 points. Rion Brown had 21 with five 3s.
Brandon Paul had 18 points for Illinois (23-13).
Meanwhile the Cardinals started strong, but blew a healthy lead against the Mets Sunday. Jake Westbrook pitched six innings, allowing just two earned runs, but then the bullpen came in and gave up seven runs in the final three innings...The Cards lost to the Mets 10-7.
Meanwhile, The Saint Louis University Billikens easily handled their first round matchup against New Mexico State Thursday afternoon, winning 64-to-44. They move on to play Oregon on March 23rd.