Atlanta, GA – Chasing history, Rick Pitino guides his Louisville Cardinals into the Georgia Dome on Monday to take on John Beilein's Michigan Wolverines for the 2013 NCAA Championship.
With a victory on Monday, Pitino will become the first coach in NCAA history to win national titles at two different schools, capturing his first title with Kentucky in 1996. Pitino has also recently learned that he will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Pitino made his seventh Final Four appearance this weekend, tying for fourth all-time with North Carolina's Roy Williams.
The Cardinals overcame a double-digit second half-deficit to move into the title game, edging out Wichita State on Saturday, 72-68. To get to Atlanta, Louisville topped Duke (85-63) in an Elite Eight game that will be remembered most for the horrific injury suffered by forward Kevin Ware. The team also posted wins over NC A&T (79-48), Colorado State (82-56) and Oregon (77-69) in the Midwest Region. The Cardinals have now won 15 straight games and their 34 total wins this year has set a single-season school record. Louisville is seeking its first national title since the second of Denny Crum's two national championships in 1986.
The young Wolverines figured out Syracuse's zone defense early and held on to post a 61-56 win against the Orange on Saturday to advance to Monday's title game. Michigan advanced to its fifth official Final Four (seventh when taking into account a pair of vacated seasons) by knocking off South Dakota State (71-56) and VCU (78-53) with ease, followed by a thrilling overtime win against Kansas (87-85 OT). The team finally earned the trip to Atlanta by blasting Florida (79-59) to finish off South Regional action.
The Wolverines have their own rich NCAA Tournament history. Michigan is trying to secure its first national title since 1989 and will play for the national title for the first time in 20 years. That contest featured the "Fab Five" knocking off Kentucky in the Final Four before falling to North Carolina in the 1993 NCAA Championship tilt. The loss to the Tar Heels came one year after losing to Duke in the same game. In all, Michigan is playing in its sixth national title game (1965, 1976, 1989, 1992, 1993, 2013).
Louisville has won both prior meetings between these two teams, back-to-back years in 1977-78.
Michigan freshman forward Mitch McGary continued his breakout tournament, recording his third double-double in the last four games with 10 points and 12 rebounds in the win over Syracuse. Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. had a solid game as well, finishing with 13 points, six rebounds and five assists, while Glenn Robinson III netted 10 points. Every point was needed as National Player of the Year Trey Burke struggled, hitting just 1-of-8 shots from the floor and posting just seven points in the win. The Wolverines had no problem with Syracuse's 2-3 zone in the first half, took an 11-point lead into intermission (36-25) and then did just enough to hold on for the win.
"We're so proud. I am so proud. But the university I know is so proud of these young men tonight," said Beilein following the Syracuse win. "All our fans everywhere. Given the great first half they played, then hanging on in the second half with no timeouts was incredible show of character and unity and all the things that we preach all the time, the poise. So really proud of them. It's certainly a great moment for them and our university. I know everybody at Ann Arbor, the Michigan brand all over the world is very happy tonight."
Burke, the Big Ten Player of the Year, also won the Wooden Award and Oscar Robertson Trophy as the nation's top player. He has been electric as both a potent scorer (18.5 ppg) and deft distributor (6.8 apg). Multiple scoring options for Michigan include Hardaway (14.6 ppg), Nik Stauskas (11.2 ppg) and Robinson (10.9 ppg). The 6-foot-9 McGary (7.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) has burst on the scene in the postseason and has been just as important to the team's successful tournament run as anyone. Still, the Wolverines know there is one more obstacle to overcome.
"I mean, playing for the title is what we've been working for all season long," said Hardaway in regard to Monday's title game. "This team made a lot of sacrifices to get to this point. We're just going to try to do a great job of containing Louisville and make sure we play Michigan basketball."
The Cardinals certainly had their problems with Wichita State on Saturday night, trailing for most of the game and by as many as 12 points in the second half. However, Louisville finally had some defensive success late to earn the win. The bench came up huge in the victory.
"I just kept telling the guys ... 'We're going to make a run. It's about defense,'" Pitino said. "The tempo is not ours. Give them their credit, but the bench won the game for us tonight. Unbelievable display."
Walk-on Tim Henderson hit two key 3-pointers in the second half to ignite the comeback, but it was Luke Hancock who took over the game late, finishing with 20 points off the bench. Russ Smith was once again instrumental at the offensive end, despite struggling with his shot. Smith was just 6-of-17 from the field and 5-of-12 from the free-throw line, but still managed a team-high 21 points. Chane Behanan added 10 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds. The Cardinals, who shot just 40 percent from the floor in the first half, upped that to 48.3 percent in the second half to earn the win.
"We had to win this game with our second unit of Steven Van Treese, Tim Henderson, one of the best sixth men in basketball Luke Hancock, and Montrezl Harrell," said Pitino. "The reason our starters played poorly is because Wichita State is that good. So we're really happy to be playing in the final game."
Smith (18.9 ppg) has been lethal in this event, averaging 25.0 ppg thus far. Gorgui Dieng (9.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 80 blocks) has provided balance down low, although he was limited against the Shockers due to constant foul trouble. Peyton Siva (9.8 ppg, 5.7 apg) has started every game this season and has been a steadying influence at the point. Despite the loss of Ware, the Cardinals still possess great depth, as Behanan (9.6 ppg) and Hancock (7.7 ppg) have been instrumental in the tournament run to this point.