ATLANTA – It had everything, stars playing their roles, subs playing like stars, all in a cauldron that is appropriate for the final night of the college basketball season. The Georgia Dome staged an NCAA title game Monday night worthy of what was at stake. The only shame: It didn’t come down to the final shot.
That last fact was avoided because the Louisville Cardinals, over the past two months, have proven themselves to be an exceptional basketball team, with weapons both large and small. They needed them all — savvy senior guard Peyton Siva and his 18 points, six rebounds and five assists; ferocious forward Chane Behanan and his 15 points and 12 boards; indispensable reserve Luke Hancock with 22 more — to take an enthralling 82-76 victory over Michigan that may not have needed a buzzer-beater, but wasn’t decided until the final minute.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hancock said. “It does not get better than this.”
There have been better title games, for sure, but not every year, or every other year. Forgotten, by the end, was that Michigan (31-8) shot out to a 12-point lead. Forgotten, too, was the uneven officiating — an unfortunate hallmark of this tournament.
But there was so much more to embrace. Michigan freshman Michael “Spike” Albrecht, all 5 feet 11, 170 pounds of him, somehow scored 17 first-half points to incite the crowd and mesmerize the nation. Hancock, named the Final Four’s most outstanding player, countered that attack with 16 in the first half, all as Louisville guard Kevin Ware — who famously suffered a gruesome broken leg in the region final victory over Duke — looked on.
“We’re brothers,” Ware said.
Behanan was a behemoth. One of a handful of plays that went a long way to determining the outcome came with Louisville up, 76-70, with just less than two minutes remaining, and Michigan’s offense looking proficient. Behanan went up for one shot, which didn’t fall. He grabbed the ball, and tried again. No go, and Michigan appeared ready to chip away.
Except Behanan wouldn’t allow it. He somehow grabbed that final board and muscled the ball back into the hoop, and the lead was eight with 1 minute 50 seconds left.
“Players put coaches in the Hall of Fame,” Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said. “Tonight, Chane Behanan’s guts on that backboard is one of the reasons we won.”
Thus, Pitino, announced earlier Monday as a member of this year’s class for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, spruced up his resume, becoming the first coach to lead two schools to a national title. (He coached Kentucky, Louisville’s arch rival, to the championship in 1996.) And the Cardinals (35-5) finished the season as unquestionably the nation’s best team, with 16 straight wins.
There has been much consternation for this and several seasons about the physical nature of the college game. Scoring is down, shooting percentages are down, and the game suffers. In each of the last three national title games, neither team scored 70 points. The average offensive output for the winner: 60.3.
Monday night, both teams had cruised by the 60-point mark with just less than eight minutes remaining. They combined to shoot 48.6 percent. In a frantic first half, they buried 11 of 19 three-pointers. Michigan’s famed Fab Five — the class of recruits who played in the 1992 national title game as freshman and then again the following year — all showed up, including the estranged Chris Webber, and watched basketball worthy of their era, from sources both likely and not.
None was more captivating than Albrecht, who had done nothing to portend this. Consider: Since Jan. 24, he had played in 20 games and scored a total of 34 points. Never had he scored more than seven. Never had he played more than 15 minutes. Never had he taken more than five shots — and that was in the season opener against Slippery Rock. And if Michigan Coach John Beilein hadn’t offered him a scholarship, he might have taken the only other one he was offered — from Appalachian State, an offer he needed to go to a year of post-graduate school to secure.
And then the stopgap became a star. After Michigan junior point guard Trey Burke, the national player of the year, scored the team’s first seven points, Albrecht took over.
“He may not pass the look test,” Burke said. “But he’s going to make plays for his team.”
With Burke on the bench with two fouls, Michigan built a 33-21 lead. Albrecht had 17 points in 16 minutes, including four threes.
Turn, then, to Hancock. At 6-6, he at least passes the look test. Still, his only scholarship offer after high school in Roanoke came from George Mason, and he transferred to Louisville after Patriots coach Jim Larranaga left for Miami. Yet his 20 points were a huge reason Louisville got past Wichita State in the semifinals.
And with Michigan threatening to run away, Hancock single-handedly reeled them back in. He scored 14 straight Louisville points — including four three-pointers, each one getting the red-clad fans to fill the dome with a louder roar. When Siva tossed an alley-oop pass, in transition, to forward Montrezl Harrell, and Harrell threw it down with a force that shook the building, the place nearly came unglued.
“I just thought we needed something,” Hancock said. “I tried to do whatever I could to help the team. I usually take a back seat to Russ [Smith] and Peyton, which I’m fine with, since they’re such great players.”
Then the game was turned over to the stars. When Behanan hit a pair of free throws with 13:50 remaining, Louisville seized a 49-47 lead, and the back-and-forth, breakneck pace seemed as if it would continue. The Cardinals didn’t pull away. But they also didn’t trail again.
Still, there was one key exchange with less than a minute remaining. With Louisville up 78-74, Siva took a floater that missed, and Michigan’s Caris LeVert grabbed the rebound. But LeVert came down out of bounds. Louisville had possession again, a new shot clock — and everything but the victory.
In the final moments, Burke – who scored a game-high 24 – launched an air ball under duress, and only then did Pitino turn to his bench and begin embracing anyone in sight. It would be one to cherish, regardless of style. But the Cardinals could embrace the trophy knowing they won the title in a manner befitting a champion.