ATLANTA — Months before he became a lifelong Louisville legend this weekend, Luke Hancock's teammates had an inkling he was special.
Two players showed up late to one of the first days of offseason weight training Hancock participated in at Louisville. Undeterred by his status as the newest player on the team, the George Mason transfer confronted his teammates and told them firmly they needed to be on time in the future.
"The new guy yelling at somebody? That's crazy," Louisville guard Michael Baffour said. "You don't come into a situation where you don't know anybody and say things like that. He really displayed his leadership there."
Hancock led Louisville this season with both his words and play as he proved under difficult circumstances in Atlanta. With his gravely ill 70-year-old father in the Georgia Dome stands watching him play for maybe the final time in person, Hancock delivered the two greatest games of his life, becoming the first non-starter to earn Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four in the process.
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Two nights after scoring 14 of his 20 points after halftime against Wichita State to spark a second-half Louisville rally from a 12-point deficit, Hancock again saved the Cardinals when they trailed Michigan by 12 in Monday night's title game. He turned momentum in Louisville's favor, burying four rapid-fire threes in the final three minutes of the first half to help the Cardinals pull within one by halftime and ultimately earn an 82-76 win.
Hancock came up big once more with the game on the line, knocking down a key 3-pointer to extend Louisville's lead to 10 with under four minutes to go and sinking two late free throws to finish with a team-high 22 points. Those buckets were a thrill for Hancock both because they helped secure Louisville's first championship since 1986 and because they came in front of his father.
"I'm so excited for this team," Hancock said. "It's been a long road. There's really no words to describe how I feel that my dad was here. It's hard to put into words. I'm so excited that he was here. It means a lot."
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It's a testament to Hancock's perseverance that he has gone from overlooked recruit to Final Four folk hero in just a few short years.
The best option Hancock had coming out of Hidden Valley High School in Roanoke was an offer to walk-on from Virginia Tech, so he opted to attend Hargrave Military Academy for a year in hopes of drumming up further interest. He caught the eye of the George Mason staff and played his first two collegiate seasons there, earning a reputation as a clutch shooter, selfless leader and hard worker.
Hancock probably would have stayed at George Mason his entire career had coach Jim Larranaga not left for Miami following the 2010-11 season. Rather than play for Paul Hewitt, Hancock sought a change, opting to join former Hargrave coach and current Rick Pitino assistant Kevin Keatts at Louisville.
"As soon as we learned he was transferring, I told Coach Pitino we had to have him," Keatts said. "I think he's a kid that plays with a grudge, plays with a chip on his shoulder. He came to Hargrave because he was a good student but he had no Division I offers. I think that has motivated him along the way."
Hancock's work ethic and leadership skills impressed the Louisville staff so much that Pitino made him a team captain before he played his first game for the Cardinals. He thrived with that responsibility too, pushing and prodding his teammates at the appropriate moments during the season and famously running to Kevin Ware's side after his gruesome broken leg in the Elite Eight when the other Cardinals were recoiling in horror.
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The impact Hancock made behind the scenes was greater than what he accomplished on the floor for most of the season as he dealt with the effects of a lingering offseason shoulder injury. He logged sporadic minutes and scored in double figures only five times prior to February, eventually becoming a target of fan criticism because his perimeter jump shot wasn't falling consistently enough.
Patience paid off for Hancock as his shooting improved late in the season when his shoulder began to give him less trouble. He performed well during much of Louisville's season-ending 16-game win streak and saved his best for Atlanta.
Thanks to Louisville's win Monday night, Hancock is now an incredible 7-0 in NCAA tournament games. He hit the game-winning shot for George Mason against Villanova in the opening round of the 2011 NCAA tournament but then sat out the Patriots' second-round loss to Ohio State because of an ailment.
Of those seven victories, there's no question Monday night's was the most special. Hancock delivered the performance of a lifetime on the biggest stage on which he'll probably ever play – and he did it with his family in the stands watching.
"It means so much, so very much," Hancock's mother, Van Hancock, said. "Our whole family is here, all of Luke's brothers and sister, his father, under one rool One big roof but we're all together."
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