Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Sports

Louisville tops Michigan for NCAA title

ATLANTA — Rick Pitino capped the greatest week of his life with the prize he wanted most.

Luke Hancock had another huge game off the bench with 22 points, and Pitino became the first coach to win national titles at two schools when relentless Louisville rallied from another 12-point deficit to beat Michigan 82-76 in the NCAA championship game Monday night.

This title came on the same day Pitino was announced as a member of the latest Hall of Fame class, a couple of days after his horse won a big race on the way to the Kentucky Derby, and a few more days after his son got the head coaching job at Minnesota.

This was the best feeling of all. The Cardinals (35-5) lived up to their billing as the top overall seed in the tournament, though they sure had to work for it.

Louisville trailed Wichita State by 12 in the second half of the national semifinals, before rallying for a 72-68 victory. This time, they fell behind by 12 in the first half, though a stunning spurt at the end of the period wiped out the entire deficit.

"I had the 13 toughest guys I've ever coached," said Pitino, who plans to follow through on a promise he made to his players if they won the title — by getting a tattoo.

No one was tougher than Hancock, named the most outstanding player. He came off the bench to hit four straight 3-pointers after Michigan got a boost from an even more unlikely player.

Freshman Spike Albrecht made four straight from beyond the arc, too, blowing by his career high before the break with 17 points. Coming in, Albrecht was averaging 1.8 points a game and had not scored more than seven all season.

While Albrecht didn't do much in the second half (zero points), Hancock finished what he started for Louisville. He buried another 3 from the corner with 3:20 remaining to give the Cardinals their biggest lead, 76-66. Michigan wouldn't go away, but Hancock wrapped it up by making two free throws with 29 seconds left.

While Pitino shrugged off any attempt to make this about him, there was no doubt the Cardinals wanted to win a national title for someone else — injured guard Kevin Ware.

Watching again from his seat at the end of the bench, his injured right leg propped up on a chair, Ware smiled and slapped hands with teammates as they celebrated in the closing seconds, the victory just 30 miles from where he played his high school ball.

Any pain from that gruesome injury in the regional final, when he landed awkwardly, snapped his leg and was left writhing on the floor with the bone sticking through the skin, was long gone as he hobbled gingerly onto the court with the aid of crutches, backing in a sea of confetti and streamers.

The basket was lowered so the injured player could cut the net.

"These are my brothers," Ware said. "They got the job done. I'm so proud of them, so proud of them."

Peyton Siva added 18 points for the Cardinals, who closed the season on a 16-game winning streak, and Chane Behanan chipped in with 15 points and 12 rebounds as Louisville slowly but surely closed out the Wolverines (31-8).

Michigan was in the title game for the first time since the Fab Five lost the second of two straight championship games in 1993. Players from that team, including Chris Webber, cheered on the latest group of young stars.

But, like the Fab Five, national player of the year Trey Burke and a squad with three freshman starters came up short in the last game of the season.

Still, it was quite a run for a fourth-seeded team that knocked off No. 1-seeded Kansas with the greatest comeback of the tournament, rallying from 14 points down in the second half to beat the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16.

But they came up against a No. 1 seed and the ultimate comeback team in the final.

"I've had a lot of really good teams over the years, and some emotional locker rooms, and that was the most emotional we've ever had," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "The team unity we had, the sacrifice we had from five seniors who did not get to play very much, to these young guys buying into the team concept.

"We feel bad about it."

Louisville had yet another stunning rally in the Big East championship game — down by 16 in the second half, it won by 17 over Syracuse — and will take this championship with them to the new American Athletic Conference. That league, which includes USF and soon UCF, is what's left after the Big East split off.

The Big East is guaranteed both men's and women's Division I basketball titles, and Louisville can become only the second school to sweep both, joining Connecticut in 2004.

     
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