ATLANTA (WDRB) -- One Shining Moment. Many little moments.
Having beaten Michigan 82-76 for the school's third NCAA Championship, the University of Louisville basketball team looks up as the music begins in the Georgia Dome . . .
U of L coach Rick Pitino's family seems to materialize from everywhere, his wife Joanne hugs him from behind and they watch, magnified on the big screens, a similar embrace from Behanan of Pitino at the end of the Duke victory, the smile on Pitino's face widening as the frame slows, Russ Smith closing to join in.
Kevin Ware, on crutches, with tears he cannot contain, wears a net around his neck he had cut when the rim was lowered to him. Pitino's voice reverberates as it plays over the music when showing the aftermath of Ware's broken leg against Duke, echoing through the dome Ware's words, "Just win the game." And the tears come again for Ware, dripping down his cheek onto the confetti and streamers that cover the court he wanted so badly to play on. In the video's final image, Ware's picture is shown, cutting down the net draped around his neck.
Also around Ware's neck, the arm of Chane Behanan. It has been a quiet season for Behanan. But he made noise at the finish. Before the game, he told everyone who would listen that he was coming to play. He shook hands with Pitino and said, "Don't worry." He told Peyton Siva, "Go ahead and thank me." Translation: He was about to deliver. He did deliver: 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Luke Hancock watches almost bemused. His eyes move to teammates, and over to his ill father, a few rows back.
"You do something like this," Hancock says later, "and it's funny. You look around and you're happy for everyone you see."
Peyton Siva stands with his father. Two championship games, Big East and NCAA, were put into his hands by Pitino. At halftime, Pitino asked Siva, "Do you know our offense?" Siva said, "Yes." Pitino responded: "Then why do you keep looking at me?"
Translation, here are the keys, son. Drive the car. Siva took it to victory lane, slashing into the lane time and again. Michigan could not contain him, could not keep him from the rim. "This is why I love Coach P," Siva said later.
Russ Smith also stands with his father, looking upward. The championship game was not a shining moment for Smith individually. It wasn't his best game. But without him, the moment never happens, doesn't come close to happening. The shining moment is his no less than anyone's.
Gorgui Dieng smiles. A smile that all Louisville has gotten used to. It may have some more time to get used to it. Later, walking out of the locker room he flashes the same smile at some reporters and says, "I'll see you next year -- in Louisville." That's not certain. His place in the program's history is.
Dieng was tremendous against Michigan, turning in an underrated performance. When U of L was struggling early, he dished out one assist after another to facilitate the offense until others could get it going.
Tom Jurich, looking up at the screen with his wife, sons and daughters around him, smiles and shakes his head. "Greatest chemistry I've ever seen in sports."
The ball is tipped, and there you are . . .
Trey Burke opened the game like the national player of the year. He scored Michigan's first seven points. In two offensive plays, he showed the deep outside shooting and artistic driving ability that have made him a star.
Countering him, U of L's Wayne Blackshear scored U of L's first five. A McDonald's All-American, Blackshear had struggled in the tournament. He had faded into the background behind the brilliant play of Hancock, who not only had become the team's best shooter but an undisputed leader. But here was Blackshear, who showed some of his first flashes of brilliance in the Final Four against Kentucky last season, jumping into the action early, and the Cardinals fed off him.
The game was free-wheeling and fast paced, with limited official interruption. It was physical but fun, with players adjusting to the loose whistle and responding with great offensive play.
"A lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you get to a championship, the game's not always great, not always pretty. This was a great college basketball game," Pitino said. "They are a tremendous offensive team. Fortunately for us, when we started this tournament, and Luke started playing a lot more minutes, we became a great halfcourt offensive basketball team. And tonight was as good as it gets."
You're running for your life . . .
Spike Albrecht wrote his name into NCAA championship lore. Seldom used all season, he made four three-pointers in a row, all of them bombs, all nothing but net, and the game ebbed to Michigan. The Wolverines went up 12. Pitino spent timeouts.
"He was killing us for a while," Hancock said.
Albrecht, who hadn't scored more than 7 points in a game all season, scored 17 in the first half with Burke on the bench with two fouls.
"I told our guys, they're going to make some shots," Pitino said. "They're as good a shooting team as you're going to see."
Louisville would have to fire back.
You're a shooting star. . . .
Hancock provided the game's signature moment.
He made the first of four straight first-half three-pointers with 2:59 left, off a pass from Gorgui Dieng after an offensive rebound. It brought U of L within nine. He hit another with 2:35 left, off another Dieng pass, to pull the Cardinals within seven. The third came off an offensive rebound by Blackshear and a dish from Siva. His fourth in a row came off a penetration and dish by Siva. When Siva fed Harrell for a lob with 22 seconds left, U of L had gone from down 12 to up one, mounting a 14-2 run in 2:29. Michigan scored to end the half and lead by one, but the Cardinals had the momentum. Less noticed -- Siva had dished out three assists in 90 seconds. In the second half, he would control the game.
Michigan could not keep him out of the lane. Siva made 5 of his 11 shots, went 4-for-4 from the line and scored 14 points in the half. When he wasn't hurting the Wolverines, Behanan was, with 11 points and 11 rebounds in the half.
Pitino subbed Hancock for Smith to open the second half, an unusual move for a team that has had no variation in a month and a half. But it was a lineup that would help the Cards later in the half. For 11 minutes, the teams matched offense and the margin stayed between 2 and 5 points to U of L's advantage. With 5:09 left and U of L up three, a pivotal moment. Siva broke into the open court for a layup, but Burke ran him down to block it. Burke was called for his third foul and Siva made the free throws, though replays showed the block had been clean. One call in a game of calls, but U of L took advantage.
The first crack in the back-and-forth came when Dieng made a 16-foot jumper with 4:50 left to put U of L up seven. Michigan's Glenn Robinson answered with a free throw, then Dieng buried another jumper to make it an 8-point lead.
After another Michigan free-throw, Hancock hit a three to put U of L up 10, and the Wolverines started to feel the pressure of time and score, with only 3:27 remaining.
Burke scored six straight points, and a pair of Michigan free throws left them down only 78-74 with 1:20 left. Siva missed a short jumper, but Michigan stepped out of bounds with the rebound with 50 seconds left. The Wolverines then waited 13 seconds to foul U of L, but weren't yet in the bonus. The Cards inbounded again and Michigan wasted another eight seconds before fouling. Hancock hit two free throws to boost the lead back to six, but Michigan wouldn't score again.
With Russ Smith at the line with less than two seconds left, Pitino subbed for Siva, greeting him with a big embrace on the sideline.
"I was all over Peyton the entire night," Pitino said. "I thought he'd have to play 38 minutes. He was pressing, running. I knew he was exhausted. I kept saying, 'You're out of shape.' He looked at me and he knew what I was getting at. I'd tell him, 'You got to dig in, man. I know what you're doing, but you're not in the shape I thought you were.' I had to keep prodding him and prodding him because watching him, I was out of gas. He just gave a brilliant performance, not only from a playing standpoint, but a leadership standpoint, conditioning standpoint. He was off‑the‑charts awesome."
Burke finished with 24 points, the game's high scorer. But he came up a couple of shots short.
"He's the best point guard in the country," Siva said. "But we had the best team."
And when it's done . . .
This time, the nets came down. Ware climbed to the court on his crutches. The Cardinals had left the nets intact after winning the Big East title. They did the same after their regional title.
Stephan Van Treese sat at his locker, trying to soak it in. Asked if he thought this was possible, he said he knew a year ago.
"After we lost to Kentucky," he said. "I knew what we had coming in and we just knew we had that team."
But knowing and doing are two different things.
This wasn't the most talented team in the country. In terms of NBA Draft potential, it's not overwhelming. But they became an intelligent team, and were driven by the quickest backcourt in the nation.
They also were directed by a newly minted Hall of Fame coach at the top of his game.
Bob Valvano provided color commentary on the game for U of L's radio network. As a former coach, his take on Pitino is a bit different.
"Provided with five options, he will always choose the one with the greatest possible reward," Valvano said. "It also may be the one that could absolutely blow up in his face, but he wants the home run ball."
Pitino became the first coach to lead two different programs to a national title. Among active coaches, only Mike Krzyzewski now has a higher NCAA Tournament winning percentage than Pitino's .750. And with this championship, he climbs into the No. 10 position in tournament winning percentage all-time, joining the ranks of John Wooden, Fred Taylor, Phog Allen, and Pete Newell.
In 75 NCAA championship games, the team behind at halftime has won only 16 times. Three of those 16 were by Louisville.
As the team returned to the locker room, a group of people remained tightly huddled in a free throw circle in front of the U of L bench.
It was a pack of Pitinos. Or, if you'd rather, a mess of Minardis. These are the families that make up the coach's life. And within that huddle, there was some heartbreak.
Christine Minardi and her children lost a husband and father on 9/11 with the death of Billy Minardi in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Pitino lost his best friend and his wife, a brother. Only a few months before 9/11, Joanne's sister, Mary, also lost her husband, Don Vogt, when he was hit by a New York City taxi. In the huddle, Pitino spoke to Mary.
"You know, you never know how you're going to feel when you get such a special moment like the Hall of Fame," Pitino said. "All afternoon I was just reflecting and thinking. Tonight I gathered my family at the end and I presented my sister‑in‑law, I said, 'This is the most important item I have in my life, but it's now yours.' We've had a rough go, our family. Mary Minardi, the youngest one, her husband went to a retirement party in New York. The man who was retiring, he didn't have a way home. Don, her husband, gave the man his car voucher. And downtown New York, Don started hailing a taxi, got hit by a taxi and died. Five months later, she lost her brother in 9/11. Unlike Stephanie, who I've been able to be an uncle to her children, . . . she had to work. She has no money. She has to work her tail off, raise three children, put them through college. I told her tonight, 'Mary, I'm not the Hall of Fame, you're the Hall of Fame. This is the most special thing that's happened to me personally and I want you to have it.' I gave it to her on the court. We're a family that's had a lot of difficult times. That being said, no one celebrates like the Pitinos and the Minardis. No one. We celebrate together."
At U of L, the celebration is on. At the team hotel, in the wee hours of the morning, Pitino and the players walked through a packed lobby carrying the trophy, holding it up and presenting it to fans.
Pitino spoke about the team's season ending 15-game winning streak that resulted in 34 victories, a school record."
"When we lost to Notre Dame in five overtimes, I said, 'Guys, we never panic. But mentally you've got to become a great basketball team, not just physically. Your superior conditioning, your willingness to work hard is great, but you're making too many mental mistakes.'" Pitino said. "I gave them very demanding goals. I said, 'It's not probable what I'm about to say to you, but I think it's possible. I think we can win the next seven games, go into the most special arena in America, win the tournament in Madison Square Garden, then go on, be a No.1 seed and win the national championship.' So we talked about it. We were quite open about it. When you set demanding goals, you really do have to focus in and pay attention to that. Those were our goals right after the Notre Dame game. The players were down. I said, 'You shouldn't be down. Give them credit. Here is what we're going to do.' To be honest with you, I'm just so amazed that they should accomplish everything that we put out there. I'm absolutely amazed as a basketball coach."
"Everybody who puts that 'L' up should celebrate."
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