ATLANTA — Rick Pitino held court in a tunnel beneath the Georgia Dome, going on and on about the grittiest bunch of guys he’s ever coached.
One of them sat in the corner of the locker room, a net around his neck, grinning away.
The Louisville Cardinals vowed to finish the job for Kevin Ware.
Boy, did they ever.
With their injured teammate cheering them on from the bench, Louisville capped its run through the NCAA tournament, coming back again from a 12-point deficit to beat Michigan 82-76 in the championship game Monday night.
“These are my brothers,” said Ware, still getting around on crutches after a horrific injury in the regional final. “They got the job done. I’m so proud of them, so proud of them.”
Ware is just getting started on what could be a yearlong recovery from a broken right leg, but he’s already got something no one can take away — a championship.
They even lowered the goal so he could take a turn with the scissors, helping cut down the net that wound up around his neck.
“It meant the world to me,” Ware said. “I don’t really have any other words to describe how I feel right now.”
Pitino knows how it feels to win a championship, having guided Kentucky to a crown in 1996. Now, working right down the road from Lexington, he became the first coach to win titles at different schools.
“This team is one of the most together, toughest and hard-nosed teams,” he said. “Being down never bothers us. They just come back.”
It was quite a capper to perhaps the best week of Pitino’s life.
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 in the Kentucky Derby. And last week his son got the coaching job at Minnesota.
His first tattoo, apparently.
Pitino vowed to get inked up if his players won the championship. They intend to hold him to that promise.
“I have a couple of ideas,” said Luke Hancock, who became the first backup 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.”
Not a bad week for Louisville, either. The school has a chance to make it two national titles in 24 hours when the surprising women’s team faces Connecticut on Tuesday night in the championship game at New Orleans.
On the eve of their big game, the women got together with hundreds of fans in a hotel lobby to cheer on the men.
“It’s a great time to be a Cardinal,” coach Jeff Walz said.
A great time, indeed. Hancock produced another huge game off the bench, scoring 22 points, and the Cardinals (35-5) lived up to their billing as the top overall seed in the men’s tournament.
They sure had to work for it, though.
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 halftime 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 from long range when he hit his final 3 from the corner with 3:27 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 title for Ware.
Watching again from his seat at the end of the Louisville bench, his battered 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 awful injury will forever be linked to this tournament. Against Duke, 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.
This one belonged to him as much as anyone on the court.
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).
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.”
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.
Not so fast. Not against Louisville.
The Cardinals came back one more time.
“We needed a rally and we’ve been doing it for a couple of games straight, being down,” Hancock said. “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 16.
But they came up against the ultimate comeback team in the final, a group that was intent on keeping the title in the bluegrass state after Kentucky won it all last season.
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.
“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,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “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.”
No wonder Ware was grinning from ear to ear.