ATLANTA (AP) — What a week for Rick Pitino! He’s elected to the Hall of Fame. His horse is headed to the Kentucky Derby. His son gets a prominent head coaching job.
Then he caps it off with what he wanted most.
Another national championship.
For that, he can thank 13 of the grittiest guys he’s ever coached.
Luke Hancock produced another huge game off the bench, scoring 22 points, and Pitino became the first coach to win national titles at two schools when Louisville rallied from another 12-point deficit to beat Michigan 82-76 in the NCAA championship game Monday night.
“This team is one of the most together, toughest and hard-nosed teams,” the coach said. “Being down never bothers us. They just come back.”
More like relentless to the very end.
They’re not stopping now, either. The players intend to hold Pitino to a promise he made: If they won a national title, he’d get a tattoo.
Better leave a lot of space, coach, if you want to make this a tribute to the team.
“I have a couple of ideas,” said Hancock, who became the first sub in tournament history to be designated as most outstanding player. “He doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”
“Our biggest motivation,” Peyton Siva added, “was to get coach a tattoo.”
That’s about the only thing that didn’t exactly turn out in Petino’s favor. Earlier Monday, he was introduced as a member of the latest Hall of Fame class. On Saturday, his horse won the Santa Anita Derby to set up a run for the roses. And last week his son got the coaching job at Minnesota.
The Cardinals (35-5) lived up to their billing as the top overall seed in the tournament, though they sure had to work for it.
Louisville trailed Wichita State by a dozen in the second half before rallying for a 72-68 victory. This time, they fell behind by 12 in the first half, then unleashed a stunning spurt led by Hancock that wiped out the entire deficit before the break.
“I had the 13 toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” Pitino said. “I’m just amazed they could accomplish everything we put out there.”
No one was tougher than Hancock, who matched his season high after a 20-point effort in the semifinal victory over Wichita State. This time, he came off the bench to hit four straight 3-pointers in the first half after Michigan got a boost from an even more unlikely player.
Freshman Spike Albrecht made four straight from beyond the arc, too, blowing by his career high before the break with 17 points. Coming in, Albrecht was averaging 1.8 points a game and had not scored more than seven all season.
Albrecht didn’t do much in the second half, but Hancock finished what he started for Louisville. He made it 5-for-5 when he hit his final 3 from the corner with 3:20 remaining to give the Cardinals their biggest lead, 76-66. Michigan wouldn’t go away, but Hancock wrapped it up by making two free throws with 29 seconds left.
While Pitino shrugged off any attempt to make this about him, there was no doubt the Cardinals wanted to win a national title for someone else — injured guard Kevin Ware.
Watching again from his seat at the end of the Louisville bench, his injured right leg propped up on a chair, Ware smiled and slapped hands with his teammates as they celebrated in the closing seconds, the victory coming just 30 miles from where he played his high school ball.
Ware’s gruesome injury during the regional final will forever be linked to this tournament. He landed awkwardly, snapped his leg and was left writhing on the floor with the bone sticking through the skin. On this night, he hobbled gingerly onto the court with the aid of crutches, basking in a sea of confetti and streamers.
Louisville again came out wearing Ware’s No. 5 on the back of their warmup jerseys; the front said, “Ri5e to the Occasion.” When the title belonged to the Cardinals, Ware put on a championship cap and got a big hug from Pitino. Then, they lowered the basket so the injured player could cut a strand out of the net.
This one belonged to him as much as anyone on the court.
“These are my brothers,” Ware said. “They got the job done. I’m so proud of them, so proud of them.”
Siva added 18 points for the Cardinals, who closed the season on a 16-game winning streak, and Chane Behanan chipped in with 15 points and 12 rebounds as Louisville slowly but surely closed out the Wolverines (31-8).