ATLANTA — Scoring is down, players leave early and the best action on television today is still probably 1980s replays of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For one Monday night, though, college basketball stood history on its head and produced high-octane magic in high definition.
Louisville’s 82-76 win over Michigan at the Georgia Dome was not just the school’s third NCAA title and first since 1986.
It seemed almost a revival and a deliverance of sorts, in front a record congregation of 74,326.
Before the game even ended, with 1.1 seconds left, Kevin Ware exchanged his courtside wheelchair for a pair of crutches and hobbled up the elevated court to hug teammate Peyton Siva.
“Win for Ware” the signs said. And Louisville did.
Ware, who gruesomely fractured his leg in front of his bench in the Midwest Regional final, watched a different kind of drama unfold in front of his bench.
There were no gasps, or shielding of eyes, this time. In eight days, a team had rallied around a teammate and fulfilled a promise.
The best team in the tournament became even closer.
“You would think we all came out of the same womb,” Ware would say later. “These are my brothers, they got the job done and I am so proud of them.”
The NCAA allowed Louisville to lower the basket so that Ware could take his scissor-snips at cutting the net.
He did, with confetti swirling all around, and then raised the net with his right hand.
“It’s just amazing,” Siva said. “Kevin was playing such a big part of it.”
Michigan played inspired and great and all those things you say about worthy competitors.
It got a story-book first half from a freshman backup guard straight from the set of “Hoosiers.”
Spike Albrecht, a name you almost couldn’t make up, out of Indiana, replaced foul-plagued Trey Burke and scored 17 points before halftime.
“That was probably back to high school days,” Albrecht said of his performance. “I was just fortunately hitting shots. Teammates were finding me.”
His had been averaging 1.8 points per game and his first minute on the court Monday was his 68th of the season. Quickly as he arrived, though, he disappeared into a scoreless second half.
Michigan also got an All-America performance from Burke, who scored 24 points in his foul-limited 26 minutes.
Siva consoled Burke afterward: “I told him he’s going to make a lot of money next year [in the NBA], don’t even worry about it.”
This title, though, seemed ridiculously predestined for Louisville. Ware’s injury spiked the team’s “want-to” to another level.
This was going to be Louisville’s tale to tell. Coach Rick Pitino had the week of his life capped with becoming the first coach to lead two schools to a national title. His Kentucky team won in 1996.
Earlier in the week before the game, his son, Richard, texted word that he’d gotten the Minnesota job at the time Rick was receiving the call he had been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
A horse Pitino partially owns won the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.
The winner of the next race, “Points Offthebench” crossed the finish line at about the time Louisville’s bench was leading a comeback win over Wichita State in a national semifinal.
How can you compete with that kind of stuff?
Louisville is not a perfect team and has a bad habit of spotting the competition a double-digit lead.
The Cardinals, though, are fastbreak spurt machines.
They handed Michigan a 12-point lead late in the first half before Luke Hancock, Louisville’s bench star, scored nine points in 90 seconds.
That’s what Louisville does to you.
“I thought we needed something,” Hancock said. “I tried to do whatever I could to help the team.”
Michigan ran to the locker room with only a one-point lead, after a half it mostly dominated.
There is always one point in a game when Louisville shows it is better than you with some hyper-explosion of basketball energy.
Wichita State led Louisville by 12 with 13 minutes left and saw it evaporate.
Michigan stayed close in the second half and must have had hope with what seemed like the entire Louisville team saddled with three fouls.
Michigan was in the bonus for the final 11:42.
The Wolverines had the lead at 46-45 but never saw it again. Louisville, though, could never bust any lead beyond five points.
The title train started leaving the station, however, when Siva slammed home a nice pass from Hancock to put Louisville up by five with 6:52 left.
Then junior center Gorgui Dieng, held scoreless Saturday, made two shots.
Hancock then made a three with 3:23 left to put the Cardinals up by 10.
Hancock finished with 22 points to earn, as a bench player, the Final Four most outstanding player award.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Hancock said.
Louisville got sloppy late in the game, though, and led by only six when Chane Behanan’s relentless effort under the rim led to a basket that put his team back up by eight with 1:50 left.
Behanan finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Siva, the senior guard and leader, rebounded from his sub-par Saturday with a line he can take to his grave. He finished with 18 points, five assists and four steals with only two turnovers.
“It hurts a lot,” Burke said of the loss. “Just to get to the national championship game, just to play for the national title, it hurts so much.”
In the end, maybe there was nothing Michigan could have done. Fate seemed to have determined it was Louisville’s turn.
–Los Angeles Times