ATLANTA (AP) — A poor night by Russ Smith wasn’t going to deny Louisville.
Not on this night, not after everything the Cardinals had already been through.
Luke Hancock made four straight 3-pointers in the first half, and Peyton Siva and Chane Behanan had monster second halves to lead the top-seeded Cardinals to their third national title and first since 1986 on Monday night with an 82-76 victory over Michigan.
Hancock finished with 22 points, including a perfect 5 for 5 from 3-point range. Siva had 14 of his 18 points in the second half, and Behanan had 11 of his 12 rebounds in the second half. Behanan also chipped in 15 points for Louisville (35-5).
“We just went into war right there with a great Michigan team,” said Hancock, named the tournament’s most outstanding player. “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.”
A beaming Kevin Ware hobbled onto the court to join his teammates for the final seconds, and he made good on his promise to cut down the nets. He didn’t need to climb a ladder to do it, though, with the basket being lowered as he cut down the final chunk of net. Siva leaped off the floor to hug his family and coach when the final buzzer sounded while Rick Pitino — the first coach to win titles at two schools — ducked as confetti began falling.
Behanan picked up two cheerleaders and, with one in each arm, carried them to the mosh pit that quickly formed at center court.
It is Louisville’s first title since 1986. The Cardinals finished the season with 16 straight wins.
“The University of Michigan, for a young basketball team, to play that well is absolutely incredible. They are a great basketball team,” Pitino said. “We beat a great basketball team probably because I have the 13 toughest guys I have ever coached.”
Louisville wasn’t exactly deep before Ware snapped his tibia in the Midwest Regional final, and Pitino candidly said his absence was going to cause “problems” for the Cardinals. Having Russ Smith revert to his wild and “Russdiculous” ways after being so brilliant in the first five games of the tournament didn’t help matters.
Smith began the night 1 of 10, and finished with nine points on 3-of-16 shooting. It was his worst performance since the Big East title game, and well below the 25 points he’d averaged in the first five games of the tournament.
But adversity means nothing to the Cardinals.
Ware’s gruesome injury — his bone protruded through the skin — would have left most teams reeling. But he became their inspiration instead, urging his teammates to “just go win the game” to get to the Final Four, then accompanying his teammates to his hometown of Atlanta just three days later.
And while his absence left Louisville short-handed, don’t underestimate the emotional lift he provided. The Cardinals tweaked their warm-up T-shirts to read “Ri5e to the Occasion,” with Ware’s No. 5 on the back. He had a seat at the end of the bench, clapping and yelling for his teammates and even hobbling onto the court for a team huddle when things looked bleak against Wichita State on Saturday night.
“It’s not about me, I’ve never been that type of guy,” Ware said. “These are my brothers. They got the job done.”
They also do.
This was the seventh time this year the Cardinals have come back from nine points or more to win, with three of those coming in the last seven games. Someone always steps up, and it wasn’t going to be any different when the stakes were at their highest.
With the Cardinals trailing by 12 — the same deficit they faced against Wichita State on Saturday night — late in the first half, Hancock made one, two, three and then a fourth 3-pointer. As his hand hung in the air after the last one, the Georgia Dome shook with cheers of “LUUUUUUKE!” for the guy who is so respected by his teammates he was made a team captain before he was eligible to play his first game for Louisville.
Siva fed Montrezl Harrell for a monster dunk and, just like that, Louisville had a 37-36 lead just before the half.
Michigan pulled within 54-52 with 12:07 to play on a deep, deep 3 by AP Player of the Year Trey Burke, who sat most of the first half after picking up two quick fouls. But then, Siva and Behanan simply took over.
The Cardinals had three players with three fouls — Hancock and Siva, included — and fears about their shortened rotation had made them cautious in Saturday night’s national semifinal. This time, however, it seemed to fire them up.
The 6-foot Siva looked about 6 inches taller as he scooped up a rebound took it all the way in for a layup, the first of three straight baskets. Behanan seemed to be everywhere under the basket, grabbing one rebound after another. Louisville outrebounded 32-27, including 20-10 in the second half.
Gorgui Dieng may have had a quiet night offensively — he had eight points — but he knocked down a short jumper to extend the lead to 65-61. Siva then scored on a backdoor dunk to make it 67-62 with 6:25 left, and the game was all but over.
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