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Louisville’s Cool Hands Overcome Michigan’s Legacies

April 9, 2013

For 16 minutes in last night’s NCAA Championship game, Louisville had no answer for Michigan’s Spike Albrecht.

(Admittedly among the unlikeliest sentences I thought I would be writing about the 2013 NCAA Title Game.  But there it is.)

A former walk-on who going into the Final Four had averaged 1.6 points per game and had a career game high of 7, Michigan’s back-up point guard couldn’t miss, could not be stopped, hitting 4 threes and scoring 17 in the absence of the Wolverines’ John Wooden Award winner Trey Burke, who himself has opened the game as a house afire until drawing a quick 2nd foul.  Michigan had gone from tied at 7-7 to up by 12, on the verge of blowing out the Overall No. 1 Seed, the Fab Five was in the house reliving their moment in the sun, and Louisville Coach Rick Pitino stalked the sidelines like an anemic Lestat.

Then, like he did at a crucial point in Louisville’s Final Four victory over Wichita State, Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock came off the bench, imposed his will and started raining threes from all over the court.  Fourteen consecutive points for Louisville after the last first half media timeout, and all of a sudden the Cardinals went from trailing 35-23 to leading 37-36.  Michigan Coach John Beilein must have been pulling at the last few hairs on his head during halftime; I can see Michigan allowing Hancock a free look, maybe letting him hit consecutive threes before thinking “Hey, maybe we better pay attention to that guy.” But after the third, causing your coach to call a timeout?  Or losing sight of him during a rebounding battle for Hancock’s fourth three in exactly 2 minutes of game time?  How can you explain that?  Never has a 12-point lead, in retrospect, looked so empty, felt so hollow.  Michigan went into halftime up by 1, but on some level it must have (should have?) felt like being down 20.

Of course, there was much more game to be had, and until the waning last few seconds Michigan made Louisville earn the program’s 3rd National Championship.  They even jumped out to a 4-point lead two minutes into the second half, yet there was a sense that Louisville’s ascendancy was inevitable, that these were the last brave overtures for a Michigan team fueled by talented youth but running on fumes.  There was Chane Behanan battling underneath for 12 rebounds, including two key rebound putbacks; Peyton Siva reprised his role as Steady Eddie, posting a 18p/6r/5a/4s stat line with only 2 turnovers in 36 minutes and making all 6 of his free throws  Gorgui Dieng coming alive in the post down the stretch for three baskets, his last one made doing his best Kareem Abdul Jabbar impression with a glorious sky hook (I miss that shot as part of basketball, upcoming post men need to bring it back); And of course Hancock was ready with the dagger three pointer to put Louisville up by 10 with 3:27 left.  All of this while their best player Russ Smith was suffering through a 3-16 shooting night.

Many observers afterwards called this game “amazing”, “epic” and “one for the ages” capping off one of the best Final Fours in recent memory.  By recent standards of the last four seasons, the 82-76 final reads as an offensive explosion in the age of milking the shot clock and hacking, shoving, grabass defense. Yet watching the second half was like going to the movie after you’re read the book; You just want to see how they brought it to the screen.

Louisville won because a.) they had the No. 1 defense in all of college basketball, b.) they had the No. 5 offense in all of college basketball, c.) Syracuse’s match-up zone sent Indiana, the only team that was convincingly deeper (and more talented) than Louisville, on an early vacation, and d.) Luke Hancock got hot when the lights were the brightest.  Michigan as a No. 4 seed in name only, starting the season 20-1, having spent most of the year ranked in the Top 5 and only fell to their seedline by losing 6 of their last 12 games prior to Selection Sunday, including a quick exit in the Big 10 tournament.  They had the best point guard and best player in college basketball in Burke who threatened to take over the 2nd half last night, a team full of genetic NBA legacies (Glenn Robinson III, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jon Horford) and a burgeoning talent coming of age in Mitch McGary.  Then Albrect, who would have been the last kid chosen in this pick-up game, does his best Billy Hoyle impression.  And yet once Cool Hand Luke showed up to the party, Louisville outscored Michigan 55-33 over the next 20 minutes of game time, and it looked like more.

All that was left was the shouting.


From → Basketball, Sports

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