It took the experience and poise of a seasoned Louisville Cardinals squad to dispose of a tough, adrenaline-fueled Wichita State team on Saturday in order to advance to the NCAA final.
And it took that same effort two days later in their championship matchup against Michigan to first neutralize the shooting of the Wolverine’s backcourt and then to overcome a 12-point deficit to defeat Michigan, 82-76, becoming the 2013 NCAA Division I Champions on Monday night.
Louisville ended its season with a 16-game winning streak before a crowd of 74,326 at the Georgia Dome.
Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino couldn’t have been more proud of his team, particularly since the victory made him the first coach to win national titles at two different schools – the University of Kentucky in 1996 and now Louisville. Earlier on Monday, Pitino was also named to the latest NCAA Hall of Fame class.
But what motivated this Cardinals team to victory – having to come from double-digit deficits twice over the weekend, was the team’s dedication to injured guard Kevin Ware…and the promise that if they won the title, coach Pitino would get a tattoo.
And while Ware watched attentively from the sidelines, not being able to play because of the devastating break to his tibia in the regional finals, he was certainly on the minds of his teammates who donned his No. 5 on the backs of their warm-up jackets.
“It’s just amazing,” senior guard Peyton Siva said.
“Kevin [Ware] was playing such a big part of it. For him to go down and everyone rally around him was a blessing.”
But for Pitino, it’s a matter of living up to a promise he gave his team some time ago: “About 12 to 13 games ago…they said ‘If we win the National Championship, coach, you are getting a tattoo. I said ‘Hell yeah I’m getting a tattoo,'” he recalled.
Despite allowing 38 first-half points against Michigan, the most the Cardinals have allowed since Syracuse scored 38 on Jan. 19, Louisville was able to settle into a team rhythm after rallying from behind that outlasted the Wolverines.
In the first half, Louisville struggled with containing Michigan’s backcourt. Guards Trey Burke and Michael “Spike” Albrecht were having their way in the opening period, with Burke hitting his team’s first seven points. But when Burke picked up his second foul at 11:09, and was called to the sideline by Coach John Beilein, Albrecht, a freshman, took over.
And took over is an understatement.
Coming into the game off the bench at the 15:34 mark in the opening period, averaging just 1.8 points per game, Albrecht scored 17 points in a span just over 11 minutes – including four 3-pointers. Going 6-for-7 from the field, 4-for-4 from beyond the arc, and 1-of-2 from the free-throw line, his fourth 3 put the Wolverines up by 10, 31-21. And at 3:56, his layup gave Michigan its largest lead of the game, 33-21.
But Louisville had been in this situation before, and junior Luke Hancock wasn’t having any of it.
Beginning with two free-throws at 3:33 and his team trailing 33-21, Hancock put on a shooting clinic of his own by hitting four consecutive 3-pointers on a Cardinals 16-3 run, producing 14 straight points while cutting his team’s deficit to one with 22 seconds left before the half. He managed to almost single-handedly negate all the damage Albrecht had done.
The shooting stats in the first half were impressive for both teams, especially from beyond the arc. Michigan went 6-for-11, or 54.5 percent from 3-point range, while Louisville hit 5-of-8, for 62.5 percent. In total, the Wolverine’s shot 50 percent from the field in the first half and 55 in the second, compared to Louisville’s 46.2 percent in the first half and 45.7 in the latter.
Hancock scored a team-high 22 points – tying his career best – and became the only reserve to win the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. The junior forward went 5-for-6 from 3-point range in the final and 11-for-15 in the tournament.
“We went into war today against a great Michigan team,” said Hancock following the game. “We needed to rally and we have done it a couple of games straight, being down. We just had to wait and make a run.”