Transcending all of the hype, Louisville and Michigan on Monday night battled it out in one of the most thrilling national championship games in recent history. This was no ordinary day at the races; this was a battle of the finest of thoroughbreds. Michigan did not lose the game 82-76 so much as Louisville simply won it.
Throughout the Final Four, the main theme for Louisville had been quickness and relentless trapping. But to win 16 games in a row and take the championship requires toughness, and Louisville had it: mental toughness, to erase Michigan's 12-point lead in the first half and overcome the absence of Kevin Ware; physical toughness, to out-rebound Michigan 15-8 on the offensive glass.
Michigan was the more talented team, at least by NBA standards. Michigan shot 52 percent from the field, the highest efficiency percentage for a losing team in the national championship since Georgetown in 1985. Yet when Spike Albrecht and the Wolverines blitzed early, Louisville stuck to its offensive game plan, just as it did when it was down 12 points to Wichita State. Luke Hancock hit a quartet of threes; but at the half, Pitino's team was still down a point.
Yet, like they have all season long, the Cardinals found a way.
Consider that the Cardinals, college basketball's best and most efficient defensive team, made 11 field goals in the paint during the second half. Chane Behanan outmuscled the more vaunted Mitch McGary and brutalized his way into 12 big-time rebounds. This, even as the explosive Russ Smith, the tournament's leading scorer, endured a woeful 3-16 performance on the heels of a subpar semifinal game against the Shockers.
But the high-ball screen for Smith and Peyton Siva proved lethal, and Louisville's defense disrupted the play of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., who went 5-13 and never established an effective rhythm. While the referees, quite frankly, made some terrible calls, particularly the foul call on Burke late, Pitino's ability to translate toughness to his team was utterly amazing.
Pitino now becomes the first coach ever to win national titles at two different schools, and his experience showed.
"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 after the game. "This team is one of the most together, toughest, hard-nosed teams I've seen. Being down never bothers us. They just come back."
Pitino, fittingly, was just inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. His brilliance in preparing his team and making in-game adjustments is beyond words. Smith summed it up succinctly when he said, "I think [Pitino] just lets us be us."
Meanwhile, Pitino's counterpart, Michigan coach John Belein, who had also been superb in March, demonstrated what the lack of championship experience can mean. When consensus National Player of the Year Burke picked up his second foul with 12 minutes to go in the first half, Belein made the mistake of sitting him. It's possible that if Burke had played the final two or three minutes, maybe the Caridnals don't come from behind, and Michigan cuts down the nets instead.
Despite the early hole, Louisville always seemed assured of its ability to close the gap. They played with the confidence that their press would wear down the Wolverines (the youngest team in the field) after 40 minutes. And it did. Michigan, the most efficient offensive team in the country, committed 12 turnovers.
Pitino described to CBS Sports' Jim Nantz why his team won the game: "Probably because I have the 13 toughest guys I've ever coached."