Louisville bests Michigan in epic NCAA title clash
ATLANTA -- By the end of the night, I expected Kevin Ware to jump, Trey Burke to fly to South America, Peyton Siva to meet him there, and Spike Albrecht to solve the crisis in North Korea. I bet Mike Rice didn't even throw a basketball at his TV.
This game was so great, I don't even need to tell you it was great. If you saw it, you know. Louisville was a little bit better than Michigan, and at least in this national title game, both teams looked a little bit better than anybody else in the country. The Cardinals' 82-76 championship-game win was not just exhilarating. It was cathartic.
Let's face it: This is a hammer-and-axe era in college basketball. Coaches over-coach, players hack each other and referees don't seem to understand why they wear whistles. Basketball is supposed to be a beautiful game. This Louisville-Michigan game was beautiful.
Albrecht, Michigan's freshman backup point guard, scored 17 points in the first half alone. A year ago, he had one Division I scholarship offer, from Appalachian State. So these 17 points were a surprise, but to people in the program, not that much of a surprise. Albrecht showed from the opening practice that he understood the game, and mostly, that he was fearless.
Burke scored 24 points in 26 minutes, and for a while, it looked like he might carry Michigan to the win, the way he has done so often in his two years. He also threw an alley-oop pass from halfcourt to Glenn Robinson III (don't try that at home, kids, unless you happen to live with Glenn Robinson III) and smacked his face on the floor and stayed in the game. Tim Hardaway Jr. drove for a thunderous dunk. For the first time since the 1990s, the Wolverines flashed NBA talent all over the floor in the Final Four.
And it didn't matter. Louisville was better. And Louisville was better mostly because the Cardinals are a little older. Siva -- the soul of the team, and maybe the fastest player in college basketball -- is a senior. Luke Hancock, the star of this game, is a junior. Hancock scored 22 points and made all five of his three-pointers.
Center Gorgui Dieng neutralized Michigan's breakout star, Mitch McGary. Dieng is a junior, McGary is a freshman, and it showed. Louisville has some NBA players, but probably doesn't have anybody who will be an NBA star. Experience, toughness and Rick Pitino's coaching made Louisville the best team in the country.
In the postgame celebration, Siva patiently answered media questions by a rope near the three-point line. Then he stopped.
"Oh, Kevin's cutting down the nets," Siva said. "You guys want to take a picture?"
Kevin Ware put a face on the juggernaut. He made the tournament favorites seem like lovable underdogs. This Louisville team was a machine in so many ways --- the Cardinals didn't even cut down the nets when they won the Big East tournament or made the Final Four, because this was a national-championship-or-bust season.
When Ware suffered his gruesome leg injury against Duke, the story changed. The uproar over adidas selling Ware-themed shirts was ironic, in a sense, because when Ware got hurt, this team stopped being all business.
I asked Ware, afterward, if he got lost in the game, like basketball fans around the country did -- if he got so caught up in the mesmerizing action that he forgot about his plight. His answer said a lot about why college sports keep drawing us in.
"I forgot about my situation as soon as it happened. All I've thought about since my (injury) is my team. Everything in life happens for a reason. My mom taught me to be that kind of kid ....
"A lot of the season, I really wasn't doing what I was supposed to do. Coach P kind of suspended me, and it kind of, really, just woke me up."
Ware said he was "wasting a scholarship," and when the injury happened, he realized it. I asked him if he vowed not to take any practices off when he gets back.
"I'm not taking this rehabilitation off," he said. "As soon as this bone heals and the doctor clears me to get on that court, I'm getting on that court full-speed. I know it's going to take a lot of time, a lot of patience, and it will be frustrating at times. But I realize I'm a lot stronger kid than I thought I was."
In one 10-minute stretch -- from 3:24 left in the first half to 13:28 left in the second half -- Louisville outscored Michigan, 29-12. The Cardinals went from down 12 to leading by five. That was the stretch that decided the game.
Luke Hancock was the one who started it -- he hit four straight three-pointers to erase the lead almost by himself. Hancock is a transfer from George Mason. He comes off the bench. His dad is sick, though his family has not said what the illness is. He was one of the least likely Most Outstanding Players in Final Four history. But the basket didn't seem to care.
Hancock sat out last year, when Louisville lost to Kentucky in the Final Four. The seeds of this title were planted that day -- without that loss, and the ensuing championship by their rival, the Cardinals might have felt OK cutting down the nets last week.
As Hancock hit those threes, Burke sat on the Michigan bench with two fouls. Ware said later: "It kind of felt like, 'We're going to get the monster, we're going to get the Player of the Year Trey Burke in the second half.'" They did. But the monster was not enough.
Michigan had chances right down to the last minute; coach John Beilein admitted afterward that he miscounted his team's fouls, and it cost Michigan critical time on the clock. And just like that, Burke's chance at a title vanished.
Burke is surely leaving for the NBA. Anybody who thinks otherwise should seek medical attention. The questions with Michigan are whether Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. leave. If at least two of those three return to school, the Wolverines could return to the Final Four next year. Louisville will lose Siva, will probably lose Dieng, and will lose leading scorer Russ Smith, who is leaving for the NBA, according to his father. But with a break or two, and a touted recruiting class, Louisville could get back to the Final Four, too.
Still, this was a rare night, an amazing night, and it may be years before Michigan or Louisville has this chance again. If they each played 30 more games with the same roster, then met again, Michigan might be the favorite. But that is not how college basketball works.
Even in an era of advanced scouting and more accurate recruiting rankings, championships are won in the tiniest ways, by the most unpredictable players. On a Monday night in Atlanta, it was the shots from a sub named Luke Hancock, the leadership of Peyton Siva, and the spirit of Kevin Ware. It was one of the best championship games in history. And the best team won it.