One of the most gruesome injuries in sports history, a pair of double digit point deficits, and a target over their heads wasn’t nearly enough to stop Louisville; not this team.
“I had the 13 toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” Head Coach Rick Pitino said in an interview with ESPN. The Cardinals rallied from a 12-point second half deficit against Witchita State to advance from the Final Four, and overcame another 12-point deficit against Michigan to become national champions, defeating the Wolverines 82-76.
Sure, Louisville was a number one seed, and no one, alumni and current students notwithstanding, roots for Goliath. But this year, Goliath had something more. Goliath had a little bit of David.
Kevin Ware sat on the sidelines at the end of the Louisville bench these last few games, leg elevated. You’d think he was just a regular guy with an injury: cheering his teammates on, any pain he was feeling from the regional final was gone. Any agony he was in from the awkward landing and ensuing leg snap, bone sticking out from his skin, was null and void as he hobbled on to the court to cheers, confetti and a national championship.
Louisville took the floor wearing Ware’s #5 on the back of their warmup jerseys and further acknowledged him on the front: “Ri5e to the Occasion” was certainly the motto of the surging Cardinals, winners of their last 16 if you count the regular season. After the final whistle blew, Louisville lowered the basket so Ware could cut his strand of the net. For it was as much his win as it was anyone on the roster.
His 4.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG and 0.8 APG in the regular season, and marginal tournament stats may not have won Louisville the national championship, but he brought something no one else on the roster could: one more reason to rise to the top. This was about something so much more than just a game; this was about family.
“These are my brothers,” Ware said in a post-game interview. “They got the job done. I’m so proud of them, just so proud.”
On the other side of the ball, Michigan was in the title game, the school’s first since the Fab Five lost in 1993. In the first half, the Wolverines came out with a vengeance. Sophomore Trey Burke burst out, hitting his first three shots for seven points, matching his Final Four output.
However, after Burke picked up his second foul in the first half, forcing him to the bench for the remainder of the half. That’s when freshman Spike Albrecht took over. He came in and nailed four straight shots from beyond the arc, accounting in part for a career high 17 points before the break: Albrecht was averaging 1.8 PPG coming into the tournament.
“Probably back to high school days,” Albrecht said, in reference to the last time he had such a prolific scoring outburst. “Coach doesn’t play guys with two fouls in the first half, so I knew I was in the rest of the half, and I was hitting shots.” Down 33-21 after Albrecht blew by junior Tim Henderson, Louisville was forced to call a timeout, during which Michigan erupted as if they’d already won the tournament. Not on Louisville’s watch.
The Cardinals had just enough to come back one more time, spurred on by the performance of backup forward Luke Hancock. Known on the team as ‘Plan B,’ Hancock was anything but: his 22 points, three assists, and two steals was enough to win Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, an honor a backup had never before taken.
More key than his overall performance, however, was a two-minute span at the end of the first half in which he hit four straight 3-pointers to trim an 11-point deficit to a one-point lead. Albrecht and the rest of Michigan were held silent in the second half: Burke and Albrecht were the only scorers to post more than 12 points. Hancock nailed another three from the corner to give Louisville their biggest lead of the game and, fittingly, hit a pair of free throws to seal the deal with 29 seconds to go.
Michigan, while hungry for the win, still had an incredible run without it. They had to knock off Kansas, the number one seed in their division, to even get to the title game, and they did that in arguably the best comeback of the tournament, coming back from being down 14 in the second half.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to get this far,” said Burke, the Wolverines leading scorer with 24 points. “A lot of people didn’t expect us to get past the second round. We fought, but Louisville was the better team today, and they’re deserving of the win.”
Long after the confetti has settled and the trophies have lost their shine, Rick Pitino will have something far more memorable left behind, something Louisville point guard Peyton Siva told ASAP Sports reporters after the game was “Probably our biggest motivation [to win].” A tattoo.
“They said, ‘Coach, if we win the championship, you’re getting a tattoo,’” Pitino said. “H— yes I’m getting a tattoo!”
While the content of the tattoo remains in question, Pitino’s quirky blend of motivation, coaching ability and sheer knowledge of the game are not, as he rides out his second national championship in the state of Kentucky with two different schools.
Further, Pitino will join the 2013 class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year, ensuring the world remembers him for who he is: one of the greatest minds, one of the most polished and respected coaches of the past two decades.
When the nation has calmed down (or recovered from) Louisville’s victory, there will be questions of whether the title was won for Kevin Ware, who has showcased immense strength (both mental and physical), whether the title was won for Pitino, who has held his Louisville team together in times of turmoil, or whether the Cardinals did it for the tattoo.
None of those answers are wrong, but none are right on their own. The Louisville Cardinals won the national championship because they had heart, skill, guts, motivation, resolve and the undying desire to win, even when down. They won because they are a team: a family. And they really, really, wanted to see that tattoo.