It was all anyone could want from a championship game, and it came at time when the sport needed it. A season pockmarked by low scores and defensive excess saved the absolute best for last — an NCAA final of great playing, great coaching and, wonder of wonders, great offense.
As if that weren’t enough, it also produced a great champion. The Louisville Cardinals took everything Michigan had to offer — and the Wolverines, at least on offense, have a lot — and hit back harder, winning 82-76. Louisville entered this Big Dance as the team to beat, and they exited as the team couldn’t be beaten.
“The toughest young men I’ve ever coached,” Rick Pitino said afterward, and after seeing the Cardinals override 12-point leads in consecutive Final Four games and overcome the loss of third guard Kevin Ware to a broken leg, nobody rose to object.
Nobody else in the land could have beaten Michigan this starry night. Nobody else could have stayed close. The Wolverines made 52.1 percent of their shots, and in the world of contemporary college basketball that’s shoot-out-the-lights stuff. Louisville saw its vaunted defense pierced from without and within, and still it won.
The first half was one of the wildest in the history of title games. The Wolverines played Louisville off its fleet feet, chasing the Cardinals out of their zone and then spreading the court so expertly that the nation’s best defensive team couldn’t stop anything — not Spike Albrecht from behind the 3-point line or Spike Albrecht driving to the hoop, and about here you were saying: Spike Albrecht?
Yes, Spike Albrecht. His given name is Michael, and he’s a freshman sub from Crown Point, Ind. He backs up Trey Burke, the national player of the year. Before Monday night, Albrecht’s collegiate zenith had been the seven points he scored in the South Regional final against Florida. He had six — on two game-altering 3-pointers — over the Syracuse zone in the first half of Saturday’s semifinal, but that was nothing compared to this.
Spike Albrecht scored 17 points in 16 first-half minutes on the sport’s biggest stage, and his driving basket 3:56 before the break put Michigan ahead 33-21. At that moment, Spike Albrecht had nearly outscored the NCAA’s No. 1 overall seed by himself, and the newly minted Hall of Famer Pitino called a flummoxed timeout, surely to ask his Cardinals: “Really? We get Trey Burke out of the game and we’re getting beat by Spike Albrecht?”
You’ll recall, however, that these same Cardinals trailed Wichita State by 12 points Saturday, and they managed to concoct another massive comeback in even shorter order. Luke Hancock, the backup forward who’d undone the Shockers, hit four treys in the span of four possessions to bring Louisville within a point, and Montrezl Harrell’s fast-break dunk off an Albrecht turnover — Spike is human! — put the Cardinals ahead.
Free throws by Glenn Robinson III gave the Wolverines a 38-37 halftime lead that, given their flying start, seemed almost like a deficit. But the intriguing part about a game separated by one point was that marked the precise margin by which one reserve (Albrecht) had outscored another (Hancock).
It seemed inevitable that Louisville would pull ahead in the second half, and the Cardinals did. Michigan kept answering, and the back-and-forth nature of this frantic made you wish it could end in a tie. John Beilein, the Wolverines’ clever coach, would think of something and his players would execute it, and then Pitino and the ‘Ville would counter.
But such is the force of Louisville’s talent and will that the Cardinals finally built a working lead of their own. A Peyton Siva alley-oop off Hancock’s feed made it 67-62, and two inside rolls by Gorgui Dieng gave Louisville an eight-point lead. And then came another 3-pointer from Hancock, this from the corner after a Russ Smith pass, to make it 76-66 with three minutes left. (Hancock would finish with 22 points and become the first sub ever named Final Four MVP.)
Still, this was the Michigan that had spotted Kansas a 14-point lead in the Round 16 and won in overtime. Burke kept driving and scoring. (He would finish with 24 points.) Inside the final 30 seconds, Michigan was within four. But the Cardinals held their nerve and made their free throws and delivered Title No. 2 to their Hall of Fame coach, and nobody could say justice hadn’t been served.
Nor could anyone say the sport wasn’t better for these 40 golden minutes on a Monday night in April. This was the right game at the right time, the right game and the right winner.
By Mark Bradley - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (MCT)
©2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services