ATLANTA (AP) – Plenty of teams talk about how tight-knit they are, how the team matters more than any individual accomplishment.
Louisville has the national title to prove it.
Short-handed because of Kevin Ware’s broken leg, facing yet another big deficit and with their biggest star, Russ Smith, having a rare off night, the Cardinals simply went to the next guys up.
Luke Hancock made four straight 3-pointers late in the first half, single-handedly halting what was threatening to become a Michigan runaway, and Peyton Siva and Chane Behanan erupted for monster second halves to lead top-seeded Louisville to an 82-76 victory that gave the Cardinals their third national title.
“I’m just so happy for our team,” said Hancock, the first sub in tournament history to win most outstanding player honors. “I’m happy that multiple guys got to contribute on this great run. Everybody from (walk-on) Tim Henderson on. It’s just great for our team.”
Their affection was unmistakable as the Cardinals (35-5) celebrated among the falling confetti. Ware, who had been helped onto the court in the final seconds, was bear-hugged by everyone in a Louisville jersey. They turned mid-court into a mosh pit, dancing and exchanging fist bumps.
And when it came time to cut down the nets, it was Ware who was given the honor of removing the last strands. Grinning from ear to ear, he stood in front of the basket as it was lowered to him.
“It’s not about me, I’ve never been that type of guy,” Ware said. “These are my brothers. They got the job done.”
They always do.
The Cardinals don’t have the same collection of awe-inspiring talent as Rick Pitino’s first title team, the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats. But they are every bit as good a team, because of their bond and unselfishness. When Ware snapped his right tibia during the Midwest Regional final, it could have unraveled the entire team. Instead, Ware urged the Cardinals to “just go win,” and his teammates took inspiration from his gruesome injury.
And when the Cardinals fell behind, there was always someone who stepped up to give Louisville a boost. The Cardinals erased a 12-point deficit against Michigan, the seventh time this year – and second time in Atlanta – they came back from nine points down or more to win.
Hancock matched his career high with 22 points, including a perfect 5 for 5 from 3-point range. Siva had 14 of his 18 points in the second half, and Behanan had 11 of his 12 rebounds in the second half. Behanan also chipped in 15 points for Louisville, which finished the season on a 16-game winning streak.
“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 and Peyton (Siva), which I’m fine with. … I just hit a few shots.”
Smith had been brilliant through the first five tournament games, averaging 25 points and shooting 50 percent. But he reverted to his wild and “Russdiculous” ways – he missed nine of his first 10 shots, and finished with just nine points – and Michigan was threatening to run away with the game behind the hot hand of Spike Albrecht.
Then Hancock made one, two, three and then a fourth 3-pointer as part of a run that turned a 12-point deficit into a one-point lead. As his hand hung in the air after the last one, the Georgia Dome shook with cheers of “LUUUUUUKE!” for the guy who is so respected by his teammates he was made a team captain before he was eligible to play his first game for Louisville.
“We needed a rally and we’ve been doing it for a couple of games straight, being down,” Hancock said. “We just had to wait and make our run.”
Michigan pulled within 54-52 with 12:07 to play on a deep, deep 3 by AP Player of the Year Trey Burke, who sat most of the first half after picking up two quick fouls. But then, Siva and Behanan simply took over. The Cardinals had three players with three fouls – Hancock and Siva, included – and fears about their shortened rotation had made them cautious in Saturday night’s national semifinal. This time, however, it seemed to fire them up.
The 6-foot Siva looked about 6 inches taller as he scooped up a rebound took it all the way in for a layup, the first of three straight baskets. Behanan seemed to be everywhere under the basket, grabbing one rebound after another. Louisville outrebounded 32-27, including 20-10 in the second half.
“He said he was going to take care of the boards, that’s what he did,” Hancock said of Behanan. “He stepped up and was a leader.
Gorgui Dieng may have had a quiet night offensively – he had eight points – but he knocked down a short jumper to extend the lead to 65-61. Siva then scored on a backdoor dunk to make it 67-62 with 6:25 left, and the game was all but over.
“We beat a great basketball team probably because I have the 13 toughest guys I have ever coached,” said Pitino, who became the first coach to win titles with two schools hours after he was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame.
And the closest ones, too.
“It’s just been an incredible run,” Pitino said, “with just the most wonderful young men I’ve had the pleasure to be around. I’m so proud of them.”
By NANCY ARMOUR AP National Writer