As a sea of delirious red-clad Louisville fans pumped their fists, exchanged high-fives and raised their arms in victory, the Cardinals players and coaches did the same on the floor in celebration of a victory they had dreamed of since this time last year.
Three hundred seventy-three days after its unexpected Final Four run came crashing to a halt against a superior Kentucky team last March, Louisville experienced the same joy its rival had at the Cardinals' expense. Behind 22 points from Luke Hancock, 18 from Peyton Siva and 15 from Chane Behanan, Louisville edged Michigan 82-76 in a scintillating national title game, delivering the school's third national championship and its first since 1986.
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"We came up short last year, but that drove us this season," Wayne Blackshear said. "All the hard work we went through this summer, the losing streak this season, it's all worth it because of this moment. This feeling right here, winning a national championship, it's indescribable."
If just getting to the Final Four for the first time in seven years made last season a clear-cut success for Louisville, the Cardinals faced greater pressure this March to finish the job. Not only did they return five of their top seven players from last season, they also entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed after catching fire in the second half of league play and rolling to the Big East tournament title.
Louisville won't be remembered as a dominant champion in the mold of a 2012 Kentucky or a 2009 North Carolina, but the Cardinals did not collapse under the burden of high expectations. They finished the season on a 16-game win streak after a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame in mid-February, a stretch that culminated with comeback victories over Wichita State and Michigan in Atlanta.
[Slideshow: Zany fans at the NCAA championship]
"When we lost to Notre Dame, ... I gave them very demanding goals," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "I said, 'It's not probable what I'm about to say to you, but I think it's possible. I think we can win the next seven games, go into the most special arena in America and win the tournament in Madison Square Garden, then go on to be a No. 1 seed and win the national championship.'
"To be honest with you, I'm just so amazed that they accomplished everything that we put out there."
Louisville's championship bolsters the legacies of those who achieved it.
Pitino elevated his status among college basketball's all-time great coaches, capturing his second national title and becoming the first coach to win a championship at two different schools.
Hancock earned the honor of most outstanding player in the Final Four, the culmination of his rise from overlooked recruit to key component of a championship run.
Siva and NBA-bound junior Gorgui Dieng ended their college careers in an ideal fashion, celebrating a title that will ensure they'll be welcomed as heroes whenever they return to Louisville.
"Truly a blessing," Siva said.
If the past few national title games haven't always been scintillating, this one was electric from the opening tipoff until the final buzzer.
[Slideshow: Cardinals celebrate national championship]
The first half was the stuff of fairytales.
Albrecht, a 5-foot-11 freshman only in the game because of early foul trouble for Trey Burke, erupted for 17 points before halftime, allowing the Wolverines to build a 12-point lead. Hancock, another unlikely star, sank four 3-pointers in two minutes to bring the Cardinals all the way back.
Some semblance of normalcy returned in the second half when stars Burke and Siva stepped to the forefront. Burke scored 17 of his 24 points in the second half and kept Michigan competitive, but Siva answered with forays to the rim of his own to keep Louisville out in front.
The game swung on a critical call against Michigan with Louisville leading by three points and only five minutes to go.
Burke appeared to cleanly block Siva on a transition dunk attempt, but referees called the Michigan guard for a foul. Siva sank the free throws, sparking a quick 9-2 blitz that gave Louisville the breathing room it needed to close out the win.
The sight of Louisville players singing along with "We Are the Champions" after the game was a stark contrast to the scene in the Louisville locker room a year ago.
Speaking in hushed tones in a somber locker room after last March's crushing loss to Kentucky, Louisville players each lamented that they couldn't replay the six minutes when their title hopes slipped through their fingers after they had rallied to tie the score at 49.
One year later, the Cardinals have atoned for that loss and finished what they started.
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