Cards' walk-on plays hero for hometown team
APR 07, 2013 1:53a ET
Before Henderson ever stepped foot onto the Georgia Dome's raised platform floor to knock down two 3-pointers in a comeback win against Wichita State on Saturday, two shots that helped bring his school within 40 minutes of its third national championship, he was fighting for a spot in summer pick-up games with some guys on the Louisville team. He was inconspicuous, at best. Surrounded by former players Terrence Jennings and Preston Knowles, who both went on to play professionally, it was hard to stand out.
"I just thought he was this quiet little church boy," Van Treese said while scrolling through the 61 post-victory text messages on his phone.
With media members surrounding the walk-on junior throughout the open locker room session following the Cardinals' 72-68 win over the 9-seeded Shockers, there was a Rudy-esque vibe filtering into the questioning. And why not? Henderson is the hometown walk-on playing for the school he grew up supporting, traveling to see games with his family dressed from head to toe in Cardinal red. He's spent weeks and months going against former All-Americans every day in practice sessions.
And when he finally got his chance — albeit a bittersweet opportunity coming in the wake of teammate Kevin Ware's fractured right tibia in the Elite Eight — he didn't disappoint.
The quiet little church boy who played 88 minutes total this season played 10 minutes and bucketed six points in the biggest game of his life.
"It hasn't hit me yet," said Henderson, who still averages less than a point per game this season. "I realize this is such a big stage, but it will probably hit me later."
Before he could play the hero, though, he had to play the writer.
While attending Christian Academy in Louisville, Ky., coach Rick Pitino and the Cardinals had little interest in a 6-foot-2 shooter who fell off his senior season due to injury. Hometown discount or not, Henderson is not exactly the prototypical Louisville player. Nobody offered him a scholarship. Sienna and Coastal Carolina were interested, but only sent letters.
Then came the injury.
"All of that went through, down to either walking on at U of L or playing at (NAIA) IU-Southeast," Henderson said.
Instead, he started writing his own letters. Three or four were sent out.
"I was like writing letters to (coach Rick Pitino) saying, 'Take me. I'll do whatever it takes,'" he said. "I knew in my mind that's what I really wanted to do. I just really wanted it really bad."
Eventually Ralph Willard, the same man responsible for selling Pitino on a lesser-known prospect named Russ Smith — the leading scorer in this year's Big Dance — watched Henderson play. He thought Henderson could help. Fast forward three years and Henderson is on the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, nicknaming himself a practice "Zone Buster" and, due to Ware's well-documented injury, taking the floor in a Final Four.
When he hoisted his first shot with 55 seconds remaining in the first half, he missed. The Cardinals were losing by one point and he missed with the sports world watching. Walk-ons don't take big shots, yet here he was shooting a jumper with an upset brewing.
When he took his second shot, Louisville was down by 12 points with 13 minutes on the clock. Again: not the ideal moment for a non-scholarship player surrounded by All-Americans.
But it went in. Forty seconds later another one went down.
"I don't know what it was," Henderson said. "I just felt calm. I felt different out there."
"First one he missed, Luke told him to keep shooting it, don't worry, we know you can shoot," starting point guard Peyton Siva said. "He hit those two threes. It was really big. I'm proud of him. He's put in the hard work all year. This was the time that he finally got to show it. He made up for hitting off the side of the backboard in Madison Square Garden."
There were other standouts for the Cardinals: Luke Hancock was the true hero, pouring in 14 second-half points; Smith was the Cardinals’ leading scorer; Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell had their moments. But something sparked on Henderson's two long-range surprises. Though he cut the Shockers' lead in half within the span of a minute, what he really did was re-instill confidence in the Cardinals' offense — something Wichita State's defense had drained from the opening tip in Atlanta.
Those two shots saved Louisville's season.
He's come a very, very long way.
"Honestly? Now, I'd trust him more than I would most guards in the country," Van Treese said. "He's gotten so much better going against guys like Russ and Peyton every day in practice. I have all the confidence in the world in him."
When it was all over, the junior walk-on spotted his family in the stands. Growing up, idolizing former Cardinals like Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean, these were the times the Hendersons shared together, as fans.
He couldn't make it over to them, though: not to hug, not to laugh, not to soak in the swirling red atmosphere. He simply waved; the celebration no one in the Henderson family could have imagined they'd be having — not even Tim — had to wait. There were microphones and recorders and cameras waiting for the hero.
"It's an amazing feeling."