Louisville’s Rick Pitino calls his team ‘the toughest guys I’ve ever coached’

ATLANTA — As spectacular as Monday night’s NCAA championship game was, the moment that symbolized Louisville’s victory came when the ball wasn’t even in play.

There were 12.9 seconds left. Trailing 80-76, Michigan had to foul right away and did, Nik Stauskas grabbing Peyton Siva as soon as he caught the inbounds pass in the corner. The instant Siva heard the whistle he turned and sprinted downcourt to get to the foul line. He wasn’t the least bit tired. Or the least bit nervous.

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The Wolverines, who had given absolutely everything they had to give, were all bent over from exhaustion. The Cardinals looked like they could have played another 40 minutes if need be.

Siva calmly drained both free throws and a few seconds later, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino was celebrating his second national championship and Louisville was cutting down the season’s final net for the first time since 1986.

“These are the 13 toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” said Pitino, who won a national championship at Kentucky in 1996 and was announced as a new Hall of Fame member Monday morning. He didn’t have a bad night, either.

This was a national championship game best described by one word:

Wow.

At the end of an NCAA tournament that had few moments worth remembering, Louisville and Michigan produced a final full of “wow” moments and performances. In the end, the Cardinals’ ability to remain relentless for 40 minutes made them the national champions.

They wore down Michigan with their pressure and pounded the Wolverines on the boards in the second half, outrebounding them 20-10 in the final 20 minutes. Luke Hancock, the George Mason transfer who was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, finished off his amazing story with 22 points.

So this NCAA title game became the story of Spike vs. Luke. Just like everyone figured in analyzing Louisville against Michigan for the national championship.

Sure, everyone figured two kids who needed a fifth year at a prep school just to find a Division I scholarship of some kind would square off in a first-half shootout with the national championship on the line.

Hancock, who went to Hargrave Academy after graduating from high school and got one scholarship offer — from George Mason — as a result, has been a key player off the bench for the Cardinals all season after transferring from George Mason two springs ago.

So the four-three point shots he hit in just less than two minutes, helping Louisville turn a 12-point deficit into a one-point lead, might have been remarkable but they weren’t completely shocking.

Spike Albrecht, on the other hand, was absolutely stunning. Or breathtaking. Almost any superlative fits. He did a prep year after high school, and Michigan Coach John Beilein decided to gamble and give him a scholarship — figuring the rest of his freshman class was so strong that Albrecht was worth a gamble as a backup.

Which is exactly what he had been all season—averaging seven minutes and 1.8 points per game. The freshman’s career high in Michigan’s prior 38 games was seven points — twice.

On Monday, Beilein put him into the game right after the first TV timeout, no doubt intending to give point guard Trey Burke a brief rest. Over the next 11 minutes 38 seconds Albrecht, looking every bit like a ballboy who had sneaked into a uniform, put on one of the most remarkable offensive displays in tournament history.

He hit a three the first time he touched the ball. Then he stepped out well beyond the NBA three-point line and hit another. Then he went through the entire Louisville defense for a scoop layup. Another three. And another. By the time the spree was over, Albrecht had scored 17 points and Michigan had a 33-21 lead.

He wouldn’t score again.

Hancock then took over, going on his three-point spree that jumped Louisville back into the game, although two Glenn Robinson free throws allowed Michigan to lead, 38-37, at halftime.

In the end, a team that began the season in November ranked No. 2 finished it in April as an emphatic No. 1. Pitino became the first coach to lead two schools to a national championship.

Louisville’s players beat a superb young team that never backed off until the final buzzer of the season finally sounded shortly before midnight.

As good as the Wolverines were, the Cardinals were better.

And they weren’t even breathing hard at the finish.

For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

 
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