Atlanta, GA – When Kevin Ware went down last week with a gruesome injury that sent his teammates and coaches into tears, Louisville's chances at winning a national title took somewhat of a hit.
Ware was a role player off the bench who averaged less than five points and had more turnovers than assists during the season, but provided depth behind the dynamic backcourt duo of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.
Head coach Rick Pitino vowed to get the sophomore guard back to his hometown of Atlanta when he broke his leg in blood-curdling fashion in the regional final against Duke, and the Cardinals delivered with a sensational second half in honor of their fallen teammate.
"I'm not sure I could have, or the players, gotten over that emotional trauma if he didn't say to me, 'Coach, I'll be fine, we've got to win the game,'" Pitino said following Monday's championship.
Without Ware in uniform, Louisville needed someone to step up if Smith or Siva had an off night, and Luke Hancock surprisingly delivered the goods en route to being named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
Hancock, who sat out last season after transferring from George Mason, combined for 27 points in Louisville's first four tournament games -- par for the course for the junior reserve during the regular season.
But the Virginia native had his number called often in the Georgia Dome, and he answered each and every time.
With Louisville trailing by 12 on Saturday to Wichita State, Hancock sparked the turnaround and finished with 20 points, unknowingly foreshadowing a similar performance two days later.
Michigan jumped out to a healthy lead late in the first half Monday, and Smith and Siva were nowhere to be found. Instead it was Hancock who caught fire, connecting on four consecutive 3-pointers over a two-minute span to trim a 12- point deficit down to one.
"As soon as we started playing Luke Hancock more, our halfcourt offense evolved into something that was very special," Pitino said.
Louisville pulled away late in the game, and Hancock fittingly provided the biggest margin with a 3-pointer with just under 3 1/2 minutes remaining. He added two clutch free throws a little later to tie a season-high with 22 points.
"I'm so excited for this team to be in this situation. It's been a long road," said Hancock, holding the trophy in the postgame press conference. "I'm happy that multiple guys got to contribute on this great run."
Hancock's other 22-point effort came in a five-overtime game at Notre Dame on Feb. 9. It wound up being the last time the Cardinals lost, as they rattled off 16 straight wins to bring a third national championship back to campus -- with plenty of help for the bench.