ATLANTA — Questions were raised in late January. Was Louisville, losers of three straight, national championship material?
The Cardinals answered the question emphatically.
Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, finished the job Monday night with an 82-76 triumph over Michigan that gave the program its third national championship and continued a march that started in doubt.
“It doesn’t get better than this,” Louisville forward Luke Hancock said.
The Cardinals, 35-5, finished the season winning 16 straight and 19 of 20, and the title also came with an inspiration tale.
Reserve guard Kevin Ware stood at midcourt celebrating with his team, on crutches as his leg heals from the gruesome break suffered in last week’s regional final.
“They got the job done, and I’m so proud of them,” Ware said.
Hancock was one of the players whose minutes increased because of Ware’s injury and turned in the game of his life.
He came off the bench and fired away, knocking in all five of his three-point attempts, including four in the first half that pulled the Cardinals back from a deficit. His final three late in the second half allowed Louisville to keep its distance.
Hancock finished with 22 points, and his two free throws with 29 seconds remaining gave Louisville a six-point lead that allowed the team to start feeling victory.
He was chosen the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
“I tried to do whatever I could to help the team,” Hancock said. “I just hit a few shots.”
Michigan ran out of gas in the end. The Wolverines, a No. 4 seed, pulled off some stunning victories along the tournament path, over top-seeded Kansas, No. 3 seed Florida and No. 4 Syracuse. But they couldn’t overcome Louisville’s defense and hustle in the end.
On the day he was announced as a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee, Louisville’s Rick Pitino became the first college basketball coach to win national championship with two programs. The first came at Kentucky in 1996.
“Players put coaches in the Hall of Fame,” Pitino said.
Heroes were plenty for the Cardinals, whose only loss after Jan. 28 came in five overtimes at Notre Dame. Along the way, the Cardinals finished as co-champions of the Big East and rolled through the league tournament.
They dominated the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but were pushed by Wichita State in Saturday’s semifinal, winning by four. Hancock came up big in that game as well with 19 points.
Guard Peyton Siva came up big with his scoring and playmaking. He finished with 18 points, 14 in the second half.
Forward Chane Behanan made a big difference in the middle with 15 points and 12 rebounds, including seven offensive boards.
Michigan guard Trey Burke, who has won a lion’s share of national player of the year awards, tried to keep the Wolverines in it, but his 24 points weren’t enough.
As the final moments tickets away, Louisville players came to hug Ware. He got to help cut down nets as the backboard was lowered.
The first half unfolded at a frenzied pace with unlikely heroes.
Michigan inched ahead 38-37 on a pair of free throws with 2.5 seconds remaining, but the half will forever be remembered for Spike.
Spike Albrecht, the Wolverines’ seldom-used reserve, played the half of his wildest dreams with 17 points. Entering the night, he hadn’t scored seven in a game, and when he made two three-pointers in the semifinal victory over Syracuse, they were the most he had in a game.
But Albrecht went nuts Monday, making all four of his three-pointers. He tossed in a couple of drives for variety, and the only shot of the first half he missed was blocked.
Albrecht was playing because he was hot and Burke, who scored Michigan’s first seven points, collected his second foul after nine minutes.
The half defied description for Albrecht, a 5-11 freshman who once had to convince airport security that he was indeed a Michigan basketball recruit and not just a young-looking kid playing a prank.
“He may not win the look test, but he can play,” Burke said. “He has a bright future. I wasn’t surprised by this. We see it happen in practice a lot.”
Albrecht cooled off in the second half, coming up short on his only three-point attempt, and he didn’t score after halftime.
But the true difference-maker of the first half was Hancock, who personally kept Michigan from jetting away. With Michigan leading 33-21 with 3:56 left in the half, Hancock scored his team’s next 14 points, including four three-pointers in a 1:59 span.
Hancock had 16 by halftime.
Louisville, which also trailed by 12 in the second half against Wichita State, caught Michigan on a vicious slam by Montrezl Harrell off a lob from Peyton Siva.
The game had changed — and Louisville was on its way to a title — thanks to Hancock.