ATLANTA — Rick Pitino capped the greatest week of his life with the prize he wanted most of all.
Luke Hancock produced another huge game off the bench, scoring 22 points, and Pitino became the first coach to win national titles at two schools when relentless Louisville rallied from another 12-point deficit to beat Michigan 82-76 in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game Monday night.
This title came on the same day Pitino was announced as a member of the latest Hall of Fame class, a couple of days after his horse won a big race on the way to the Kentucky Derby and a few more days after his son got the coaching job at Minnesota.
This was the best feeling of all. The Cardinals (35-5) lived up to their billing as the top overall seed in the tournament, though they sure had to work for it.
Louisville trailed Wichita State by a dozen in the second half of the national semifinals before rallying for a 72-68 victory. This time, they fell behind by 12 in the first half, though a stunning spurt at the end of the period wiped out the entire deficit.
“I had the 13 toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” said Pitino, who plans to follow through on a promise that he made to his players if they won the title — by getting a tattoo.
No one was tougher than Hancock, named the most outstanding player. He came off the bench to hit four straight 3-pointers after Michigan got a boost from an even more unlikely player.
Freshman Spike Albrecht made four straight from beyond the arc, too, blowing by his career high before the break with 17 points. Coming in, he was averaging 1.8 points and had not scored more than seven all season.
While Albrecht didn’t do much in the second half, Hancock finished what he started for Louisville. He buried another 3 from the corner with 3:20 remaining to give the Cardinals their biggest lead at 76-66. Michigan wouldn’t go away, but Hancock wrapped it up by making two free throws with 29 seconds left.
While Pitino shrugged off any attempt to make this about him, there was no doubt the Cardinals wanted to win a national title for someone else — injured guard Kevin Ware.
Watching again from his seat at the end of the Louisville bench, his injured right leg propped up on a chair, Ware smiled and slapped hands with his teammates as they celebrated in the closing seconds, the victory coming just 30 miles from where he played high school ball.
Any pain he was feeling from that gruesome injury in the regional final, when he landed awkwardly, snapped his leg and was left writhing on the floor with the bone sticking through the skin, was long gone as he hobbled gingerly onto the court with the aid of crutches, backing in a sea of confetti and streamers.
Louisville again came out wearing Ware’s No. 5 on the back of their warmup jerseys. When the title belonged to the Cardinals, Ware put on a championship cap and got a big hug from Pitino. Then they lowered the basket so the injured player could cut a strand out of the net.
This one belonged to him as much as anyone on the court.
“These are my brothers,” Ware said. “They got the job done. I’m so proud of them.”
Peyton Siva added 18 points for the Cardinals, who closed the season on a 16-game winning streak, and Chane Behanan chipped in 15 points and 12 rebounds as Louisville slowly but surely closed out the Wolverines (31-8).
Michigan was in the title game for the first time since the Fab Five lost the second of two straight championship games in 1993. Players from that team, including Chris Webber, cheered on the latest group of young stars.
But, like the Fab Five, national player of the year Trey Burke and a squad with three freshman starters came up short in the last game of the season.
The first half might’ve been the most entertaining 20 minutes of the tournament.
Burke started out on fire for Michigan, hitting his first three shots and scoring seven points to match his output from the semifinal victory over Syracuse, when he made 1-of-8 shots.
But when Burke picked up his second foul and had to go to the bench for the rest of the half, Albrecht took control. The kid whose nickname comes from his first pair of baseball spikes showed he’s a pretty good hoops player, knocking down one 3-pointer after another to send the Wolverines to a double-digit lead.
When Albrecht blew by Tim Henderson with a brilliant hesitation move, Michigan led 33-21, and Pitino was forced to call timeout. The freshman was mobbed on the Michigan bench, like the Wolverines had already won the national title, with one teammate waving a towel in tribute.
Not so fast. Not against Louisville. The Cardinals kept coming back.
“We just went into war right there with a great Michigan team,” Hancock said. “We needed a rally, and we’ve been doing it for a couple of games straight, being down. We just had to wait and make our run.”
Burke, who played only six minutes in the first half, finished with 24 points and did his best to give Michigan its first championship since 1989. But he couldn’t do it alone. Albrecht was scoreless after halftime, and no one else posted more than 12 points for Michigan.
“I’ve had a lot of really good teams over the years and some emotional locker rooms, and that was the most emotional we’ve ever had,” Michigan coach John Beilein said.