LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Kevin Ware's uncertainty over whether he would play or not is what made his return Wednesday night all the more special for the Louisville junior.
Ware, the guard whose gruesome right leg injury in the NCAA Midwest regional final became a rallying point during Louisville's championship run, saw his first action since last spring. He scored six points in 10 second-half minutes and the No. 3 Cardinals went on to a 90-61 exhibition victory over Pikeville.
The 6-foot-2 Ware entered the game with 13:49 remaining to a standing ovation from 19,227, moving deliberately at first before picking up the pace on a couple of breaks. He was cheered every time he touched the ball, and fans groaned nervously when he took a tumble.
Turns out there was nothing for them or Ware to worry about.
"Basketball-wise I feel like myself," said Ware, who wore black wraps on both of his lower legs. "My speed and everything, jumping-wise, feels back to normal. I feel fine."
Ware took an even bigger step toward normalcy when he hit a 3-pointer from the right side with 8:30 left that made it 71-44.
"I honestly thought I would air-ball my first shot," said Ware, who hit 1 of 3 field goals but converted 3 of 4 free throws. "When it went in, everything went back to normal."
Ware is coming back from compound fracture in his lower right leg sustained when he landed after going up to block a 3-point shot against Duke on March 31 in Indianapolis. The gruesome injury had teammates and even Louisville coach Rick Pitino crying before they regrouped with encouragement from Ware to win 85-63.
From that moment the Cardinals had their emotional center. Ware went on to become an instant, if reluctant, celebrity.
Since then the question became when Ware would come back to a Louisville squad needing his experience, length and shooting — especially with Final Four MVP Luke Hancock hobbled by an Achilles tendon injury. Ware was expected back for the opener Saturday against the College of Charleston.
But just as fast, Pitino called Ware's number.
"I wanted to get him some minutes just to get over the jitters of being back just in case we used him against Charleston," said the coach, who decided before the game to play Ware.
"He's been practicing full bore. I just wanted to see him run around, just run and jump and get some confidence. "But he's been doing that in practice."
Obviously, caught off guard, Ware approached the scorer's table slowly to check in. He sat on the floor to a steady rise in noise from the crowd, reaching a crescendo when he entered the game.
"I was a little nervous, actually," Ware said. "I didn't expect to get in so late in the game and me and coach really didn't talk about anything. But when he called my number, I was just ready to get in. I've been waiting for this moment for like 200 and 20 days now.
"It felt great."
Chris Jones scored 19 points and Montrezl Harrell added 18 in Louisville's final dress rehearsal. The defending national champion Cardinals shot 33 of 64 from the field (51.6 percent) and held the NAIA Bears to 34 percent.
Russ Smith added 12 points, and Wayne Blackshear had 10 for Louisville.
But the story of the night was having Ware back on the court for real.
"It was great," Blackshear said. "He's been practicing the last couple of days and he's been doing great. No hesitation or anything. ... When he went into the game, it's like, he's back now."
Keala King scored 21 points for Pikeville.