This year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament has certainly been one to remember. From the numerous early-round upsets of teams like Georgetown to the numerous Cinderella stories of Florida Gulf Coast University and near championship contender Wichita State to cringeworthy moments like the Kevin Ware incident, there have been various dimensions of excitement as countless brackets have been annihilated. After all of the upsets and antics, however, there was still a championship game to be played. This past Monday night, the Louisville Cardinals faced off against the Michigan Wolverines.
While Michigan fought tremendously hard to make the title game as a four seed, knocking off both the number one seeded Kansas Jayhawks and the tough Syracuse Orange, it was the story of Louisville, however, that perhaps best captured the essence of the tournament. After easily handling low seeded teams like the North Carolina A&T Aggies and the Colorado State Rams, they defeated the 12th seeded Oregon Ducks to match up against the 2nd seeded Duke Blue Devils in the elite 8.
It was this game, specifically, that defined Louisville’s title run. During a close first half, Louisville’s Kevin Ware horrifically injured himself, sparking something extra in the Cardinals. From that moment on, this tournament was about more than just a win for Louisville. It was a win for a fallen teammate, a win for a hurt family member. Louisville went on to crush Duke by 22 points. Then against the Cinderella team, Wichita State, they battled from 12 down to win an inspirational game that set them up for a title. Add in the fact that Head Coach Rick Pitino had just been accepted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and you have all the makings of a team destined to win. It was clear that Kevin Ware would be cutting down the nets no matter whom Louisville was playing for the championship.
The big game itself was extremely intense. Michigan went up early by 12, but Louisville roared back to finish the half down by only one. The game itself was extremely fast paced and exciting as teams traded deep shot after deep shot and alley-oop for alley-oop. Sure, there were some close calls and blown calls, just like in every other basketball game ever, but nothing that severely impacted the game. Late in the second half, the Cardinals began to pull away. With 50 seconds left, Michigan had a chance to make it close once again. However, Tim Hardaway Jr. stepped out of bounds when he grabbed his rebound, giving Louisville an extra possession. That is exactly what this game came down to: little moments that seemed to sway the tide in Louisville’s direction.
It was the spirit of Kevin Ware that had propelled Louisville to their first championship since 1986. Whenever they were down, they miraculously fought back. When they needed a big shot, they hit it. It may have been the team on the court that outscored Michigan, but it was the family off and around it that truly won. Rick Pitino’s recent string of good fortune that included winning a horse race, his son getting a coaching job at Minnesota and being inducted into the Hall of Fame that might have added some extra mojo. And don’t forget about the crowd. They were electric.
But there was something about Kevin Ware’s injury that lingered throughout the competition. Watching this game, you knew they were doing it for him. Just look at the improbable story of Luke Hancock. A junior with a season 7.7 points per game came off the bench to provide a performance of historic proportions. He scored 22 huge points, including a three-point dagger that gave the Cardinals a 10 point lead late in the second half and was named Most Outstanding player. Everything that could go right did. Michigan tried their best to match this magic with freshman Spike Albrecht, who scored 17 in the first half (much more than his average of 1.8 points per game). But, again, for every time Michigan battled, Louisville battled harder. Their big men proved too overpowering as they wore Michigan out.
This game, this tournament, even the final moments of sheer bliss for the Louisville Cardinals proved why there is nothing quite like March Madness. From fans filling out brackets and putting their hopes in random numbered teams, to the fans putting their energy and spirit into their school’s team, to the players putting their minds, bodies and spirits on the line for their teammates, families and schools—there is no professional sport that can compare. For as much as I love the NBA, it can never equal the excitement of these NCAA tournament games. After the season, LeBron is still LeBron regardless of whether he wins a championship or not. But these guys, guys like Luke Hancock and Spike Albrecht, they can captivate an entire nation for one night. This was their moment, their team’s moment and it felt so incredibly genuine. That spirit that Louisville carried with them through this incredible championship run could be felt by every single person watching Monday night’s game.