Louisville’s basketball team is talented with several players likely to toil in the NBA, and if that isn’t enough has on its bench one of the best coaches in Rick Pitino, but what separated the Cardinals from the pack is their heart.
Several times this season Louisville (35-5) faced double-digit deficits, but responded with victories like in the recently-held NCAA men’s title game against Michigan at the Georgia Dome with a record crowd of 74,326 watching.
When the Cardinals fell behind by 12 points in the opening half, they found a way to get back into the fray and would prevail, 82-76.
“These are the 13 toughest guys I’ve ever coached,’’ said Pitino, the only college head man to lead two programs to the championship, and who earlier in the day was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “Michigan is a great team. We had to come back and beat them.”
Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke (game-high 24 points) scored the Wolverines’ first seven points in less than five minutes, but soon picked up his second foul which sent him to the bench.
In came seldom-used freshman Spike Albrecht, who hit four three-pointers including one with 11:41 left that gave Michigan a 20-15 lead.
By the time the Wolverines built a 26-19 advantage and 7:45 left, Albrecht, who entered averaging less than two points, had 12, and when Albrecht (17 points) canned another trey with 5:45 showing, Michigan was ahead 31-21. Albrecht’s hoop with 3:51 on the clock made it a 12-point lead.
Now it was Louisville junior small forward Luke Hancock’s turn to nail three-pointers, and when he did with 1:37 left the Cardinals closed within, 36-32.
When Hancock, named the Most Outstanding Player after scoring a team-best 22 points, hit a three it narrowed the gap to 36-35, and Michigan led 38-37 at the half.
Louisville seemed even more determined after sophomore shooting guard Kevin Ware sustained a broken leg in the Midwest Regional Final, and he proved an inspiration.
“These guys are like my family,’’ said Ware, who grew up in Atlanta. “It’s like we all came out of the womb together.”
Louisville junior shooting guard Russ Smith, who had four points at the half and finished with nine, usually carried the offensive load, but not on this night. It would be senior point guard Peyton Siva and sophomore small forward Chane Behanan.
Siva had four points at the half, but erupted for 14 points in the second half, while Behanan had 15 points with a game-high 12 rebounds.
Michigan (52.1 percent from the floor) led 46-43 with 15:57 left, but the Cardinals, the overall No. 1 seed in the tourney, went on an 11-6 spurt for a 54-52 lead as 11:42 remained.
Burke scored and hit a free throw with 7:57 left as Louisville’s lead was cut to 63-61, but the Cardinals (45.9 percent) pulled in front 71-65 and 4:34 left.
Michigan junior small forward Tim Hardaway Jr. (12 points) made one of two foul shots and 3:52 on the clock that sliced Louisville’s lead to 73-66, and Hardaway’s layup got the Wolverines (31-8) within 80-76 and 14.1 seconds left.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.