Louisville, shaking off another sluggish start, finished the national championship game and the college basketball season with a bang, fending off Michigan to capture its third NCAA Tournament title Monday night at the Georgia Dome.
The Cardinals’ 82-76 victory was born of unmatched depth and poise. It also helped that they were inspired by injured guard Kevin Ware and coached by Rick Pitino, who became the first to ever coach two different teams to the championship.
Not only that, but Pitino earlier Monday was named an inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I had the 13 toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” Pitino said. “I’m just amazed they could accomplish everything we put out there.”
It was not easy. Led by player of the year Trey Burke (24 points) and freshman Spike Albrecht, who had 17-first-half points, Michigan led by 12 points in the first half and seemed in control of the game. It was then that Louisville’s toughness showed up. Reserve Luke Hancock, who was huge in the semifinal win over Wichita State, delivered again, hitting four straight three-pointers that actually put the Cardinals in front by one just before halftime.
Michigan got two free throws to earn a one-point halftime advantage, but Louisville had built momentum. Hancock went on to become the Final Four’s most outstanding player for his career-high 22 points Monday night.
But he had plenty of help. Point guard Peyton Siva was outstanding in attacking the Michigan defense and forward Chane Behanon (15 points, 12 rebounds) was an inside force, as Louisville pulled ahead 76-66 and did what it needed to do to earn the title.
Ware, the guard from metro Atlanta whose legged snapped in gruesome fashion in the Duke win, cut down what remained of the nets in the Cardinals’ post-championship celebration. Ware’s poise and strength got them pass Duke and his presence on the sideline at the Georgia Dome fueled them.
Still, some players said they were inspired by something else. Pitino told the team he would get a tattoo if they won the national championship.
Siva (18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) called it, “Our biggest motivation.”
Pitino said he would fulfill his promise. What’s a tattoo to a man who had the week he has, which included the Hall of Fame announcement, his horse winning the Santa Anita Derby to set up a Kentucky Derby run, and his son, Richard, getting the coaching job at Minnesota?
The championship is what he wanted most, and Pitino and the Cardinal nation can bask in that achievement.