Fans across the nation and particularly in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome were able to enjoy one of the most well-played NCAA Finals games in history last night. The Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship by defeating the Michigan Wolverines 82 – 76 Monday night in a thrilling heavyweight bout which lived up to its billing. The Louisville women will attempt to complete a basketball sweep when they take on Connecticut in New Orleans for their NCAA championship battle tonight.
The titanic battle was full of runs by both teams, as Michigan (31 – 8) surged to a 12-point lead in the first half, sparked by Spike Albrecht’s unconscious 3-point shooting. But Louisville (35 – 5) was able to close the half on the back of Luke Hancock’s own prodigious shooting behind the arc.
The first half ended with Michigan leading 38 – 37, and it was reminiscent of a championship boxing match, with both teams exchanging body blows, and both teams getting back up and counter punching. Albrecht knocked down four straight 3-pointers in the first half to provide the initial fireworks on his way to a career-high 17 points, which was unexpected as he averaged only 1.8 points per game coming into the contest. Hancock also shot 4-of-4 behind the 3-point line in the first half, although his scoring outburst wasn’t as surprising as the reserve had scored 20 points against Wichita State in the Final Four semifinals. Hancock also hit one more clutch 3-pointer in the second half to give Louisville its largest lead at 76 – 66, finished with 22 points, and locked up the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award in the process.
But this was a true team win, as Louisville had many shining moments. Point guard Peyton Siva penetrated and scored several buckets at the rim, including two off back screens. Siva ended up with 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, and four steals, in another stat sheet-stuffing game. However, the senior’s emotional leadership was probably his most important contribution, as he refused to let his team lose composure after falling behind early against a determined Michigan team.
That emotional spark carried over to Hancock and Chane Behanan who had a monster game on the boards, on his way to a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds, including one particular second half possession where he had several contested offensive rebounds and a putback in traffic.
Center Gorgui Dieng displayed a soft shooter’s touch from mid-range, as well as a surprisingly deft passing touch on his way to eight points and a game-high six assists. Dieng also set several solid picks, corralled eight rebounds, and blocked three shots.
Michigan had their set of heroes also. Consensus national Player of the Year Trey Burke, finished with a game-high 24 points, despite a swarming defense geared to limiting his scoring opportunities. Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway, Jr. both scored 12 points each, including a couple highlight reel dunks.
Michigan was able to grab the early lead, and keep the game close for most of the second half, but Louisville’s constant defensive pressure allowed the Cardinals to once again overcome a double-digit deficit by wearing down their opponents in the second half. The best team in the nation won last night.
The hits just kept coming for Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, who earlier in the day was inducted into the Hall of Fame. With the victory, he tied legendary coach John Wooden for career wins. On Saturday, his thoroughbred racehorse won the Santa Anita Derby, a stepping stone for the Kentucky Derby. His son Richard Pitino was named the head coach at Minnesota last week. And most importantly, Rick Pitino won a tattoo, a pledge he made to his players if they won the national championship.
However, the most moving moment was during the post-game ceremony, when Kevin Ware, sidelined after his gruesome compound fracture in the game against Duke, cut down the nets.