When the University of Louisville’s sophomore guard (and Georgia native) Kevin Ware went down with the broken-leg-heard-round-the-world in the Men’s Regional Final of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament against Duke, he gave his team one piece of advice.
“Just go and win this game for me.”
Not only did the Cardinals win that game, but they carried that motivation all the way to Atlanta for the Final Four, and the school’s third national basketball championship. With a record crowd of 74,326 watching at the Georgia Dome (just 37 miles from Oxford), Louisville defeated the University of Michigan 82-76 in one of the more intriguing title game matchups in recent memory. The high-scoring Wolverines, led by consensus National Player of the Year Trey Burke, got off to a great start against the defensive-minded Cardinals. They controlled much of the first half and led by as many as 12 points, getting a big contribution from seldom-used guard Spike Albrecht, who chipped in with 17 points (he averaged 1.8 points per game over the course of the season).
However, just as in the National Semifinal against Wichita State, Louisville fought back from a double-digit deficit. Led by sharpshooter Luke Hancock, who hit four consecutive 3-pointers in as many possessions, Louisville cut the Michigan lead to one at the half.
In the second half, the Cardinals kept doing what made them the number one overall seed in this year’s tournament: playing aggressive defense, grabbing timely rebounds, causing foul trouble (Michigan forward Mitch McGary, who had an outstanding tournament, sat on the bench for much of the latter part of the half with four fouls), and of course, knocking down timely shots. Hancock, named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 22 points, hitting all five of his three point attempts, including the dagger that gave the Cards a ten-point lead with 3:20 to go that they would not relinquish. Senior point guard Peyton Siva added 18 points (14 in the second half), 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals in arguably his best all-around game of the tournament for Louisville (35-5), who closed the season on a 16-game winning streak. Sophomore Chane Behanan chipped in with 15 points and 12 rebounds as Louisville slowly but surely closed out the Wolverines (31-8). The aforementioned Burke, who sat much of the first half after picking up two early fouls, did all he could, finishing with 24 points (17 in the second half), 4 rebounds and 3 assists in a losing effort.
Officially named to the Basketball Hall of Fame hours before the game, Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino, won his second national championship (1996 with Kentucky), solidifying his status as one of the best coaches college basketball has to offer. Of course, he could not have done it without his group of gritty, tough players who willed their way to ultimate victory in the face of much adversity and pressure.
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