ATLANTA — Go ahead. Decry the slop and lambast the ugly. Point to the record-low scoring and interruptive whistles that supposedly dragged this college basketball season through the mud. The sport needed fixing, many claimed, until Louisville and Michigan brought their hammers to the Georgia Dome and patched those holes right up, at least for one night.
Only the Cardinals climbed the ladders late Monday night and cut the nets following an 82-76 victory, but the entire affair was a reprieve for college basketball, a buzzer-beater just before summer.
“You know, a lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you get to a championship, the game’s not always great, not always pretty,” Cardinals Coach Rick Pitino said. “This was a great college basketball game.”
It was certainly entertaining. After a season marked by the lowest scoring average since 1951-52, 40 minutes brought too many subplots to count: Chane Behanan’s unlimited energy on the offensive glass, Peyton Siva’s gliding layups and the shots of steel from Luke Hancock, the first reserve named Most Outstanding Player.
Spike Albrecht swished deep three-pointers, blissfully unaware that borderline Division I prospects aren’t supposed to upstage the stars in the Final Four, and fellow Michigan guard Trey Burke justified the endless influx of national hardware with a game-high 24 points.
Soon, Cardinals guard Tim Henderson said he’ll be fighting off the temptation to watch replays during class. Pitino promised he would get a commemorative tattoo to honor the toughest team he’s ever coached. And Kevin Ware, Louisville’s injured guard and bottomless well of motivation, couldn’t wait to deliver the snipped nylon slung around his neck back home to his dog.
“I’m just soaking it in,” said Henderson, himself an unlikely hero in a semifinal victory over Wichita State. “The amount of talent on that court was just incredible. And to watch that, and to be a part of that and play some, it’s incredible.”
The aftermath even brought revitalizing moments of honesty, from the losing coach nonetheless. After a week when Rutgers Coach Mike Rice’s profanity-laced practice tirades played on repeat, here was Michigan’s John Beilein, freely admitting a colossal mistake.
The Wolverines were down 78-74 with 52 seconds left and had one foul to give. But Beilein, whose tournament ascent has brought recognition as one of the game’s greatest chess masters, assumed Louisville was in the one-and-one. Thirteen seconds burned before Michigan finally fouled, allowing the Cardinals just enough separation. And best of all, Beilein owned up to the gaffe.
“It was a coaching error,” he said. “That falls on me as a coach.”
Such refreshment can only nourish interest entering the offseason, with plenty to look forward to. Glancing ahead to 2013-14, Kentucky, with an incoming recruiting class heralded as the greatest ever, likely will be the early title favorite. Duke and North Carolina reload and won’t be far behind. Louisville will still challenge, even if Siva, guard Russ Smith and center Gorgui Dieng all set sail for lucrative waters. And Michigan, which could lose up to four stars to the NBA draft’s first round, plans to use its NCAA-allotted two hours of practice this week, working off the sting on the court.
“I hope tomorrow when we get on that plane, there’s some smiles on the faces,” Beilein said. “The sun is going to come up tomorrow. If they’re not smiling we’re going to make them smile. They’re terrific young people. As I said, we’re the luckiest coaching staff in the world to be able to coach those guys . . . The word ‘love’ was used over and over and over. Two 19-year-old guys said, ‘I love you.’ That’s pretty deep stuff.”
And what’s not to adore? As Louisville’s fans bellowed delirious chants of “C-A-R-D-S,” and the players, one by one, placed their sneakers onto the ladder rungs, a few highlighter-yellow shirts lingered in the stands. Some Michigan fans were despondent, coming to terms with a championship miss that felt tantalizingly close. But others kept their cellphones out, trained onto the midcourt celebration. Even the heartbroken, it seemed, still couldn’t look away.