Chane Behanan celebrates during the final seconds of Louisville's NCAA championship victory over Michigan.
Chane Behanan and Rick Pitino embrace in the final seconds of Louisville's national championship victory.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Freeze the frame. Chane Behanan is under the basket, poised to go up with the ball. Three Michigan players surround him, arms up, banging, digging for the ball.
In a game praised for being one of the more open, entertaining NCAA championship games in recent memory, this was the blue collar moment.
Run the video back. Behanan took a beautiful feed from Peyton Siva, then missed the layup. Then he missed the tip. From the sidelines and live TV view, what happened next looked like a jumble of bodies.
Slowed down and viewed from the end zone, it is something else. Here, in the middle of the fight, you see that four Michigan players get a hand on the ball. Michigan center Mitch McGary sweeps his left arm at Behanan and bats at the ball. National player of the year Trey Burke comes flying in to make a run at it but can't control it. Glenn Robinson III has a brief chance for it, and Caris LeVert, for just a moment, has both hands on the ball.
But it is Behanan who emerges with it. He fights off McGary's arm, keeps the ball alive with a swipe and a dribble, rips it out of LeVert's momentary hold with both hands and then gathers himself in the middle of a Wolverine wall, McGary behind him, Robinson on his right and LeVert on his left.
With a lunge upward, he forces the ball high off the glass, and it bangs into the rim, then falls through. As it does, you could easily imagine the sound of a manhole cover being dropped shut.
The basket put Louisville up by eight with 1:49 left. It also emphasized this: In a game led by brilliant bursts of offense, the Cardinals had the game's toughest player. In a game of beautiful drives and three-point thunder, Behanan's brute force underneath was the difference.
At least, that was the opinion of Charles Barkley and Dick Vitale, who on the International broadcast from ESPN kept urging the Cardinals to look for Behanan and who, in typical fashion, was exuberant.
"What an effort, what an effort, what a terrific effort, Chane Behanan, what a great effort," Vitale shouted after he scored amid three defenders. "Look at him work, right to the deck, three guys hanging on him, hanging on him, and he scores."
The sequence summed up the season for Behanan. He blew the layup. He fought for the tip. And then he scored. Start slowly, finish surely. He did it the hard way.
Behanan began the season with a suspension. Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino was disappointed that he didn't improve in the offseason.
"I told the guys to celebrate after the Final Four," Pitino said. "I think Chane celebrated for three months."
Behanan had 42 rebounds in the season's first four games against lesser competition, then his average steadily declined. In the final seven regular-season games, he had 36. At times, freshman Montrezl Harrell was more effective, and there were times during the stretch run of the season that Pitino seemed on the verge of turning to the athletic power forward in a more significant way. But he never did.
He knew he needed Behanan. And the biggest sign that he still had him came during the Big East Tournament championship game. Behanan came to the bench in the second half and Harrell played the game of his life. He took over in the paint, scoring 20 points and pulling down seven rebounds as the Cardinals erased a 16-point deficit.
At least once, Pitino tried to put Behanan back into the game and Behanan said, "Keep him in. He's got it going. Let him go." Pitino smiled at the thought.
"When a guy says something like that, it tells you that he's thinking of team," Pitino said. "He wanted to win a championship more than he wanted anything else. That's a sign of a player who is maturing."
It's a long way from the Behanan that Pitino talked about early in the season, as a player who had not put in the offseason work, and who was probably the most distracted player on the team.
It's easy to throw terms around like that. But Behanan isn't distracted without reason. He grew up in downtown Cincinnati's Fay apartments. When WDRB's Pat Doney visited in February of 2012, Behanan's brothers took him out to the concrete court where he learned to play. There was a pole on each end with backboards, but there were no rims. They hung up crates to serve as baskets.
Even among kids, you needed to play a man's game to stay on the court.
It was, as many inner city areas are, a heavy drug culture. Behanan had an older brother arrested on drug charges, and saw the effect on his mother. There were times he thought about quitting basketball, but he viewed basketball as a lifeline. It's a lot of weight for a young player to hang on a game. It gives insight into his desire, but also into his distraction.
"I just have to stay at it," Behanan said. "In my family, I think I'm just the last person left that can make something happen. If it ain't me, it's nobody."
Times were hard. The family's home caught fire, and Behanan, his mother and four siblings had nowhere to go but to move in with a grandmother.
Over time, she decided that the neighborhood was no good for Behanan, and worked through family connections to help him move to Bowling Green, where after a short adjustment he managed to fit in and have a successful senior season, averaging 23.3 points, 14.4 rebounds and becoming a McDonald's All-American. It was while he was there that he changed his college commitment from Cincinnati to Louisville. He told Doney that switch might have saved him.
A few months into his freshman year at Louisville, a friend in Cincinnati, 23-year-old Deante Armstead, was shot and killed in a robbery.
"He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time," Behanan told Doney. "To be honest, I really don't think I'd be here today if I'd stayed in Cincinnati."
Out of all that comes a certain degree of toughness. And it means when you back Behanan into a corner, he comes out like a fighter at the bell.
Statistic time: In the second halves of the national semifinal against Wichita State and championship game against Michigan, Behanan scored a combined 21 points and pulled down 17 rebounds. Those are monster numbers.
And they were no surprise to Behanan, who despite his struggles, knew he would be there at the end, because he knew what it would mean to him, on and off the court.
"Go ahead," Behanan told Peyton Siva, hours before the University of Louisville played for the NCAA championship against Michigan. "Say thank you."
The implication was that Behanan was getting ready to deliver something to be thanked for. It was a brash promise, but he backed it up. He even told Pitino before the game, "Don't worry," that he would control the boards. He delivered. He had 10 points and 11 rebounds in the second half of the most important game of his life.
Against Wichita State, with Stephan Van Treese spelling Gorgui Dieng at the center spot, Behanan became even more aggressive. He was forcefully demanding the ball, and hit a key step-back, hanging jumper in the lane late in the Cards' comeback.
Kevin Ware, whose injury shook Behanan perhaps more than any other teammate, sat across from his best friend on the team in the locker room and assessed the performance.
"'Bout time Chane played," Ware said.
"He's probably right," Behanan agreed.
Behanan's game, like his personality, is brute force with rough edges. But those helped the Cardinals carve out a championship.
"Chane's ceiling is unlimited," Pitino said. "It's just going to be a matter of discipline to unlock it."
With the clock stopped, just seconds remaining and the victory in hand, Behanan sprinted from the opposite free throw line to embrace Pitino, wrapping both arms around the coach.
"It's a one‑time thing in life," Behanan said. "You never know if you get this opportunity again. So we just left everything out there on the court. For me, it's just a dream come true. Just coming from where I come from, Cincinnati, Ohio, the area I grew up in, any kid would want to trade places with me today. To have the opportunity to come out here to show my talent, win a national championship with my brothers, it's unbelievable. I love these guys like they my real brothers. That's it. It's just a dream come true."
It hasn't come easy. But Behanan remains a dream in progress.
This series of championship profiles is part of an e-Book compilation from WDRB.com and Eric Crawford titled, "The Run," a look back at the University of Louisville's NCAA title run through Eric's game stories from WDRB, and new material on the players and Coach Rick Pitino. The e-Book will be available FREE OF CHARGE from WDRB.com in May, via the web site in easy-to-adapt PDF form, or from the iTunes store, as a thank you to our readers. TOMORROW'S PROFILE: Kevin Ware.
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