Men's Basketball

John Clay: Title caps magical week for Rick Pitino

Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell, coach Rick Pitino and guard Peyton Siva celebrated after the Cardinals won the national basketball title.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell, coach Rick Pitino and guard Peyton Siva celebrated after the Cardinals won the national basketball title. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

ATLANTA — After a season of some pretty bad basketball all around, this was 40 minutes of fun.

After some ups and downs during the past 16 years, this was 40 minutes of Rick Pitino cementing his legend, becoming the first coach to win a national title at two different schools.

After 12 months, it took just 40 minutes to bring the NCAA championship trophy right back to the commonwealth.

Last year, Kentucky.

This year, Louisville.

Take that North Carolina.

Take that Indiana.

Take that all those other so-called basketball states.

And Louisville had to earn the title, outlasting a young and talented Michigan team, superbly coached by John Beilein, that led the Cards by as many as 12 points in the first half before finally falling 82-76.

"The University of Michigan, for a young basketball team, to play that well is incredible," Pitino said after matching the championship he won at Kentucky in 1996. "But I have the 13 toughest guys I've ever coached."

Tough enough to overcome the loss of Kevin Ware, tough enough to overcome the poor shooting (3-for-16) of star Russ Smith, tough enough to overcome the Michigan men.

And tough enough to overcome an amazing first-half performance from Michigan freshman guard Spike Albrecht, a sub who averaged 1.8 points a game during the season scored 19 points in five NCAA Tournament games.

Albrecht scored 17 points in the first half, throwing in open three-pointers, nailing contested three pointers, even somehow slithering his 5-foot-11 frame into the paint to score on drives.

Yet, Louisville got a big lift at the end of the first half from Luke Hancock, the dead-eye Cardinal who nailed four consecutive three-pointers to give Pitino's club some momentum going into halftime.

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It was easily the best and most fun basketball of the season, with Albrecht throwing in threes and Hancock — who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player — matching with bombs of his own from downtown Atlanta.

The second-half story was Chane Behanan, the sophomore from Cincinnati who played his high school basketball at Bowling Green High School. Behanan, the best friend of the fallen Ware, scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds during the final 20 minutes.

"Chane Behanan's guts on that backboards is one of the reasons" Louisville won, a giddy Pitino said.

Time and again, Behanan battered the backboards, keeping the ball alive with tips and volleys and grabs. On one possession, he wrestled the basketball away from a trio of Wolverines, then somehow muscled the ball into the basket for a key Louisville bucket.

It capped a tremendous week for Pitino, whose son Richard was named head coach at Minnesota on Thursday. On Saturday, Goldencents, a horse Rick Pitino partially owns, won the Santa Anita Derby in California.

Saturday night, Louisville rallied from a 12-point deficit to beat Wichita State and earn Pitino his third trip to the NCAA finals, his first since 1997.

Monday morning, Pitino was officially named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Monday night, the former Kentucky coach won a title at Louisville.

And if there are Kentucky fans who can't stand the thought of the title flag being flown in Louisville, they should be proud it flies again — so soon — inside the state.

Here's an idea.

A dozen games ago, when Louisville was feeling the effects of a three-game losing streak, the players challenged Pitino to some body art?

"These guys, if they say hello they get a tattoo," Pitino said. "They told me, 'If we win the national championship, will you get a tattoo?'

"I said, 'Hell, yes, I'm getting a tattoo.'"

Maybe that tattoo should be the shape of a basketball inside the outline of the state of Kentucky.

With these words: Home of champions.

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