Michigan was in the title game for the first time since the Fab Five lost the second of two straight championship games in 1993. Players from that team, including Chris Webber, cheered on the latest group of young stars.
But, like the Fab Five, national player of the year Trey Burke and a squad with three freshman starters came up short in the last game of the season.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to get this far,” said Burke, who led the Wolverines with 24 points. “A lot of people didn’t expect us to get past the second round. We fought. We fought up to this point, but Louisville was the better team today, and they’re deserving of the win.”
Louisville has a chance to make it two national titles in 24 hours.
The surprising women’s team faces Connecticut on Tuesday night in the championship game at New Orleans.
Good luck matching this breakneck finale. The first half, in particular, might have been the most entertaining 20 minutes of the entire men’s tournament.
Burke started out on fire for Michigan, hitting his first three shots and scoring seven points to match his output from the semifinal victory over Syracuse, when he made only 1-of-8 shots.
Albrecht took control when Burke picked up his second foul and had to go to the bench for the rest of the half. The kid whose nickname comes from his first pair of baseball spikes showed he’s a pretty good hoops player, knocking down one 3-pointer after another to send the Wolverines to a double-digit lead.
When Albrecht blew by Tim Henderson with a brilliant hesitation move, Michigan led 33-21 and Louisville was forced to call timeout. The freshman was mobbed on the Michigan bench, as if the Wolverines had already won the national title, with one teammate waving a towel in tribute.
“That was honestly, probably back to high school days,” Albrecht said, remembering when he’s had a similar stretch. “Coach (John) Beilein doesn’t play guys with two fouls in the first half, so I knew I was in the rest of the half, and I was fortunately hitting shots. Teammates were finding me. That’s about it.”
It didn’t last. Not against Louisville.
The Cardinals came back one more time.
“We just went into war right there with a great Michigan team,” Hancock said. “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.”
Burke, who played only six minutes in the first half because of the foul trouble, did his best to give Michigan its first championship since 1989. But he couldn’t do it alone. Albrecht was held scoreless after the break, and no one else posted more than 12 points for the Wolverines.
Still, it was quite a run for a fourth-seeded team that knocked off No. 1-seeded Kansas with the greatest comeback of the tournament, rallying from 14 points down in the second half to beat the Jayhawks in the round of the 16.
But they came up against the ultimate comeback team in the final.
“I’ve had a lot of really good teams over the years, and some emotional locker rooms, and that was the most emotional we’ve ever had,” Beilein said. “The team unity we had, the sacrifice we had from five seniors who did not get to play very much, to these young guys buying into the team concept.
“We feel bad about it. There are some things we could have done better and get a win, but at the same time, Louisville is a terrific basketball team. We have not seen that quickness anywhere.”
Louisville had already pulled off a stunning rally in the Big East championship game — down by 16 in the second half, they won by 17 — and another against Wichita State. They surged back again behind their own ace off the bench.
Hancock matched Albrecht from the 3-point stripe. Then, trapping the youngster and knocking the ball away, he set up a fast break that ended with Siva flipping up a lob that Montrezl Harrell slammed through for a dunk, capping a stunning 16-3 run in less than 4 minutes that gave the Cardinals their first lead of the night, 37-36.
Glenn Robinson III made two free throws with two seconds left to give Michigan a 38-37 lead at halftime.
But everyone knew this game was just getting started.
And when it was done, Pitino, Ware and the Cardinals were celebrating in the middle of the mammoth Georgia Dome, assuring the national title will stay in the bluegrass another year.
Last season, it was Kentucky winning it all, the same team that gave Pitino his first title in 1996.
Now, he’s got another one — right down the road in Louisville.