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Ware takes the heat off top-seeded Louisville

ATLANTA — Louisville guard Kevin Ware will be on the Cardinals’ bench as a spectator tonight, six days after suffering a horrific leg fracture that ended his season in the regional final.

Ware was a late scratch from Thursday’s media sessions, with a team spokesperson explaining Ware was exhausted from the heavy schedule he’s been keeping of late. Ware drew national attention not only from the injury but his accepting response. He told coach Rick Pitino in the aftermath to make sure Louisville finished off Duke. Then he was whisked off to the hospital for surgery.

Ware’s grace under duress brought him instant celebrity status and did his teammates the favor of deflecting attention from them as they take the favorite’s role into tonight’s semifinal against upstart Wichita State.

“If anything, I’m just glad to know Kevin Ware now even more because he’s probably the most famous person I know,” guard Peyton Siva said. “When you have Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama call you, it’s pretty good to say I know that person. It’s pretty amazing. I think it’s more taxing on Kevin than any of us.”

Ware also made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, reading off the Top 10 thoughts going through Kevin Ware’s mind after the injury. No. 1: At least my bracket’s not busted.

Ware’s injury has taken the media spotlight away from his teammates, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Louisville’s the lone No. 1 seed remaining in the tournament. The Cards are favored to win it all after reaching the Final Four for a second straight year.

“People are expecting us to win it,” guard Chane Behanan said. “I think that is the one difference from last year to this year. Last year, I don’t want to say it was a fluke because we were a great basketball team last year, this year is just totally different. We have the No. 1 seed. It’s a lot of pressure with everyone expecting us to win.”

Ware’s injury has relieved some of the burden. Instead of being asked about winning it all, the Cardinals (33-5) are entertaining a preponderance of questions about their fallen teammate.

“We’re going to support him the best way we can,” center Gorgui Dieng said. “Every Final Four team has a topic that people want to focus on. Kevin’s getting all the attention, and I’m sure he’s going to handle it well. He can have all the attention. We don’t need it.”

“Kevin is a big part of this team,” said Behanan, who donned Ware’s No. 5 jersey after Louisville ousted Duke. “I’m glad all the attention has been on him. The focus of everyone on the team remains the same. Everyone knows what our goal still is.

“I think it will be a big motivation for us. One of our teammates went down. We as a team have to step it up. There will be some people who have to play more minutes so we will have to all lock in and play.”

Louisville knows it can’t let its guard down against the Shockers, a ninth-seed that’s on an upset binge. Wichita State knocked out Pitt, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State en route to the Final Four.

“Once we step on the floor, we’re going to play our role,” Dieng said.

“Every team that wins the national championship, they play their role. Everybody knows what’s at stake. It’s going to be an ugly game, but we’re looking forward to it.”

The gruesome injury’s behind them now, although that was no easy task.

“It was tough for a lot of us, especially me, because we are close,” guard Wayne Blackshear said. “I couldn’t really stop thinking about him even after we got back to playing. I really had to work to get grounded and get back into the game.”

But Ware will be alongside them tonight, reminding his teammates why they’re all here. It’s as he told Pitino right after the injury: “Win the game.”