Louisville tops the college basketball world

The Cardinals mount the second-biggest comeback in NCAA Championship history to win its 16th game in a row and the one that matters most.

This year's NCAA men's Division One National Championship will undoubtedly go down as a top ten final in tournament history.

Louisville didn't need last second shots or overtime, but it did need 12-point comeback to push past Michigan to win the championship, 82-76. 

In a year of winning streaks, Louisville is the only team to end its with a win—the Cardinals' sixteenth since losing the in five overtimes to Notre Dame in early February. Rick Pitino, in his 35th season as a head coach, was humbled at the press conference.

Photo: Micky Shaked
Peyton Siva hoists his piece of the NCAA Championship net after Louisville's win over Michigan Monday night in Atlanta.

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“I’m absolutely amazed as a basketball coach.”

The first half was all Michigan, as an unknown young player named Spike Albrecht lit up the Cardinals. The 5-foot-11-inch freshman threw his coming out party, blind-siding the 74,326 fans in attendance and millions following along elsewhere with his best Gerry McNamara impression: 17 first-half points on 4-5 shooting from three. Before tonight, Albrecht scored a total of 48 points all season.

National Player of the Year Trey Burke wasn’t the least bit surprised. “If there was a point guard I want coming off the bench, it’s Spike,” he said. “We see him do things in practice a lot.” At halftime, Jalen Rose recounted the greatest point guards of all time: “Right now it’s Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas and Spike Albrecht.”

But another hero, perhaps previously unsung to those outside his locker room, also came off the bench and sang the winning song twice in three days. Louisville's Luke Hancock, the first non-starter to earn the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player honor, single-handedly brought his team back into the game with 16 first half points, finishing with 22 in front of his father who is facing a serious but undisclosed illness. Teammate Russ Smith described the performance as “just what he does.” 

Rick Pitino further stamped his already shiny coaching résumé, becoming the first head coach to win national titles with two different teams — the first with the University of Kentucky in 1996—the same day he was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

And there then there was Kevin Ware and his leg.  At the collegiate level, every team purports to be the closest group of brothers or sisters. The leg that could have also ended Louisville's season instead solidified a special bond within the group of young Cardinals. Kevin Ware, who watched from the sideline, had no idea the team arranged for the hoop to be lowered, allowing him a snip at the net. “It’s been such a rollercoaster of emotions,” Pitino said. “I’ve been around when guys blow out their ACLs, but I’ve never seen such affection and spontaneous emotion. That was really, really special.”

But regardless of which storyline jerks at your heart the most, the proof lies in the confetti-flavored pudding that Louisville put on an offensive clinic in besting the Wolverines for their first title in 27 years.

Hancock entered the game for the second time with 5:41 left in the first half and his tam down 31-21. A pair of free throws and four consecutive three-pointers from the super sub in two and a half minutes and the Cardinals went into the break down by a single point. This, after Albrecht poured in his 17 points while Burke rode the bench with two fouls, had the makings of an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better scenario. “You don’t really think like that as a player, you just go out and play your game,” Hancock said. “Peyton Siva found me with a couple good passes. Russ found me a couple times, that’s all it was.”

If Louisville went into the locker room carrying the momentum, Michigan made sure the game would still be up for grabs in crunch time. Indeed the Cardinals’ biggest lead of the game was 10 points and it lasted all of 20 seconds.

The game’s frenetic pacing resembled hockey more than basketball, but with lots of scoring. Lots of scoring. The two teams surpassed the total of the Michigan-Syracuse semifinal with nine and a half minutes still to play.

Louisville lived by the three in the first half and the interior in the second—11 of their 16 second-half baskets coming from within the charge circle under the basket. Chane Behanan contributed 15 points and 12 rebounds. Eleven of his points and all seven of his offensive rebounds came in the second half. “Chane is a beast, a beast on the boards,” Smith said. “He was just everywhere. He played like a man tonight.”

But it was Peyton Siva who directed traffic when it mattered most, dropping in four layups and a thunderous alley-oop dunk for 10 second-half points. He finished with 18, five assists and six rebounds. “At halftime he [Pitino] kept asking me, do you know the plays? You keep looking over at me and asking me what plays to run,” Siva said. “In the second half he let me call the plays, what I saw out on the court.”

The buzz in the locker room was understandably jovial for the tournament’s top-ranked team. Words like great, hard to describe, and I thought my head would blow up were thrown about to describe the feelings. Russ Smith put it best. “If anybody got anything to say negative, I personally don’t care. I’m going to get a big, big ring. I’m going to meet Obama.”

The sweetest part, though, is promise Pitino made to his team a year ago that he would get a tattoo if they won the National Championship. And he fully intends on making good. But what should he get? Siva has an idea for a perfect lower back tat. “You know, get my name.”

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