ATLANTA - All season, the narrative in college basketball was parity; a year allegedly defined by the lack of a dominant team. But it was only noise Monday night, drowned out by a Georgia Dome celebration that confirmed one program was indeed a cut above the rest.
Louisville stamped its greatness once and for all with an 82-76 victory over Michigan in an entertaining national championship game that busted all kinds of myths and made plenty of history.
For Louisville coach Rick Pitino, a New Yorker who grew up in the shadow of Madison Square Garden and twice left college basketball for the allure of the NBA, it was a crowning achievement as one of the game's all-time greats. Monday night, about 12 hours after he was officially selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he became the first coach in history to win national titles at two different schools, joining his 1996 championship at Kentucky.
For the Cardinals (35-5), who won their third national title but first since 1986, it was affirmation that supremacy is not limited to their rivals in Lexington. This team, short on surefire NBA prospects but full of players who were either under-recruited, on their second college stop or had signed elsewhere before landing at Louisville, finished the season on a 16-game winning streak and overcame the emotional drain of backup guard Kevin Ware shattering his tibia in the middle of an Elite Eight victory over Duke.
And for college basketball, which had been heavily criticized this season for low scoring and physical play, its rebuttal featured 40 minutes of skill and shot-making worthy of the 74,326 fans in attendance, the largest crowd in championship game history.
"A lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you get to a championship, the game's not always great, not always pretty," Pitino said. "This was a great college basketball game."
And when it was over, even Pitino couldn't quite believe what his team had accomplished and what his program had survived. After all, it was only four years ago that Pitino's messy personal affairs had been laid out for the world to see, followed by a 2009-10 season filled with drama and disappointment. There was even a moment in 2011, after a relative bounce-back season ended with a shocking first-round NCAA tournament loss, when Pitino thought about calling it quits.
That seemed so long ago as Louisville showered in confetti Monday, fulfilling the promise of a team that re-energized Pitino with a surprise run to the Final Four last season and came back intact this year with the sole focus of winning it all. In fact, even after winning the Big East tournament championship and the Midwest regional, the Cardinals refused to cut down nets, waiting instead on Atlanta. After twice turning back major challenges at this Final Four, they savored every last snip.
"Playing for a great guy, not just from coaching, just a great father figure like Coach P, truly amazing," senior point guard Peyton Siva said. "I baby-sit his grandkids. It's truly amazing to get this win for him."
Pitino has been through a lot in the 17 years between national titles: His failed tenure with the Boston Celtics, a brother-in-law who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, an extortion attempt by his former mistress and the arrival of John Calipari at Kentucky that threatened to overwhelm the state.
And in contrast to 1996, when he simply overwhelmed college basketball with nine NBA players and one of the all-time great teams, this title was built the hard way. It took a team reliant on its toughness and conditioning, not its pure talent. It took a group with offensive limitations that found a way to make tough shots. And it took a team with a habit of falling behind by double-digits, only to wear teams down with its pressing style and deep bench.
"I think when you work as hard as we work, it builds a foundation of love and discipline because you have to suffer together," Pitino said. "This team is one of the most together, toughest, hard-nosed teams I've seen. Being down never bothers us. They just come back."
That belief was pushed to the limit in the Final Four, both by Wichita State and Michigan. On Saturday, Louisville fell behind by 12 points in the second half and got outplayed for much of the game. But this was an even more dangerous predicament, with little-known freshman Spike Albrecht staking the Wolverines to a 35-23 lead after a flurry of 17 points. This was Michigan, the nation's top-ranked offensive team, playing with supreme confidence and getting a star performance from a role player. This was Louisville, the nation's top-ranked defensive team, unable to contain the dribble or force turnovers and looking somewhat rattled late in the first half.
"It did kind of feel different because (Albrecht) was hitting them back-to-back, going to the rim on us," forward Chane Behanan said. "They had all the momentum going for them."
Said Luke Hancock, who became the first non-starter to be named Most Oustanding Player of the Final Four: "I was nervous, how much momentum they had, how well they were playing."
But Hancock, who began his career at George Mason, hit a trio of 3-pointers in a span of 69 seconds and closed the gap to 38-37 at halftime. Though Michigan kept making tough shots, kept putting pressure on Louisville's defense, the combination of Siva's aggressiveness (he had 12 points in the second half) and Behanan's physicality (he had 15 points and 12 rebounds) was enough to control the second half.
Michigan never went away as point guard Trey Burke, the national player of the year, scored 24 points (17 in the second half) despite foul trouble. But once Louisville built the lead to 73-65 with four minutes left, it would have taken some help from the Cardinals for Michigan to come back. Instead, they made 18-of-23 foul shots and held on.
"We feel bad about it. We could have done some things better, every one of us, and got a win," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "At the same time Louisville is a terrific basketball team. I have not seen that quickness anywhere, and we've played some really good teams. The quickness is incredible and it got us a couple times today."
It was a fulfilling run for Michigan, a No. 4 seed that finished fifth in the Big Ten and entered the NCAA tournament as its youngest team. But this season was all about Louisville, which lost just once - to Notre Dame, in five overtimes - between Jan. 26 and Monday night.
"I'm just so amazed that they should accomplish everything that we put out there," Pitino said. "I'm absolutely amazed."