The University of Louisville won its first men’s college basketball championship since 1986, helping Rick Pitino make history as the first coach to win titles at two schools.
On the day Pitino learned he would be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Louisville last night erased a 12-point first-half deficit and beat the University of Michigan 82-76 in the championship game of the three-week-long National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
The Cardinals’ celebration at center court of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta came 17 years after Pitino’s first NCAA championship at the University of Kentucky and 27 years after freshman Pervis Ellison led Louisville to the second of two titles under former coach Denny Crum. Pitino, 60, took over the program in 2001 when Crum retired.
“Players put coaches in the Hall of Fame,” Pitino said after receiving the championship trophy.
Luke Hancock scored 22 points to lead Louisville, hitting all five of his 3-point shots, while Peyton Siva added 18 and Chane Behanan had 15 points and 12 rebounds. The Cardinals, who were 4-point favorites according to oddsmakers, outscored Michigan 45-38 during the second half to finish the season with a 16-game winning streak and 35-5 record.
Michigan (31-8) fell to 1-5 all-time in the NCAA title game, with three straight losses since its lone title in 1989. The Wolverines were back in the championship game for the first time since the Fab Five recruiting class of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson had back-to-back losses in 1992 and 1993. Howard, Rose and King were at last night’s game, sitting in a section of Michigan fans.
In the closing seconds, Pitino was embraced by his assistant coaches and players on the Louisville bench, and later said he’d follow through with his promise to get a tattoo if the team won a championship.
“I think that was our biggest motivation,” joked Siva, a senior who added five assists and four steals.
Pitino is the 14th coach to win multiple men’s basketball titles, with the other 13 all doing it at the same school. He’s the fifth active coach with at least two championships, joining North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Florida’s Billy Donovan, Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
Louisville’s title completes a college basketball season marked by parity, with five schools ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and no team remaining in the top five every week.
Indiana started the season as the top team before being supplanted by Duke, which then was bumped by Louisville in mid- January. Duke returned to No. 1 before Michigan made an appearance atop the poll for the first time since 1992. Indiana went back to the top spot before Gonzaga finished the season at No. 1, only to become the first of the top regional seeds to be eliminated in the NCAA tournament.
Louisville emerged as the only of the four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four in Atlanta, yet needed to overcome several challenges after winning its first three tournament games by an average of 21.6 points.
The Cardinals pulled away from Duke in the Midwest regional final after reserve guard Kevin Ware broke his right leg, an injury so gruesome that it left several teammates and Pitino in tears on the court. Louisville then rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit against Wichita State in the national semifinals to make the title game.
Louisville fought back again in Atlanta last night.
Michigan opened a 33-21 lead behind 17 points from freshman guard Spike Albrecht, a backup to national player of the year Trey Burke who had totaled 48 points in 33 regular-season games. Albrecht hit 6-of-7 shots in the first half, including all four of his 3-pointers, in a season-high 16 minutes as Burke was limited to six minutes after picking up two fouls.
Hancock answered for Louisville, scoring 14 straight points for the Cardinals, including four consecutive 3-pointers. Hancock’s shooting was part of a 16-4 scoring run that gave Louisville its first lead at 37-36.
“I was nervous with how much momentum they had and how well they were playing,” said Hancock, who became the first non-starter to be named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four, according to NCAA research dating back to 1939. “Luckily, we were able to come back.”
In the second half, Behanan hit a pair of free throws with 13 minutes and 50 seconds remaining to give the Cardinals the lead for good. Behanan, Siva, Hancock, Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng then helped Louisville fend off a Michigan team that featured five freshmen and was the least-experienced of 68 schools in the NCAA tournament. Hancock and Siva each made two free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal the win.
As the Cardinals raced to midcourt to celebrate, Pitino congratulated Michigan coach John Beilein, momentarily ducking and shielding his head as fireworks exploded overhead, sending streamers and confetti falling from the scoreboard.
Louisville fans cheered as Ware made his way onto the court on crutches and helped his teammates cut down the nets.
“It’s not about me,” Ware said. “These are my brothers, they got the job done and I’m so proud of them.”
Louisville is now the eighth school with at least three men’s basketball championships, joining UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), Indiana (5), North Carolina (5), Connecticut (3), Duke (3) and Kansas (3). Pitino said his Cardinals are a much different group than his 1996 Kentucky team that featured nine players who played in the National Basketball Association.
“In ’96 I had to control the egos, tell them it wasn’t about the NBA, it was about winning a championship,” said Pitino, who has a 48-16 NCAA tournament record. “This team is one of the most together, hard-nosed, toughest teams. Being down never bothered us. They just come back.”
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