Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Paul Newberry / The Associated Press
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.
Michigan guard Trey Burke (3) walks off the court as confetti falls on Louisville players, including Russ Smith (2), Luke Hancock (11), Stephan Van Treese (44) and Zach Price (25), after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game, Monday in Atlanta. Louisville won 82-76.
The Associated Press
Louisville forward Chane Behanan (21) shoots over Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III (1) during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 8, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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."
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