Overview: It was everything a national title game should be. Great offense, great pace, great performances, great stories and, having withstood all of it, a great national champion: Louisville.
An amazing and surprising first half was followed by a more conventional, but no less entertaining, second. It was one that kept the intrigue bubbling right up to the final minute.
Luke Hancock finished with 22 points on 5-of-6 shooting, Peyton Siva added 18, Chane Behanan pushed in 15, and the Cardinals won their third national title, their first since 1986, and made coach Rick Pitino the only man in Division I NCAA hoops history to win a title at two schools.
The key sequence began with five minutes to play. Trey Burke's block on a Siva fast break at the 5:09 mark -- a clean play, and an incredible one -- was whistled a foul. Siva made both free throws, and then Gorgui Dieng finished a secondary post move on the next possession as the Cardinals pushed their lead to 71-64. Dieng hit another old-school hook shot at 4:13, and then Hancock made another 3-pointer -- his fifth of the game -- to make it 76-66 with 3:05 left to play.
But Michigan didn't go away. A bad Russ Smith shot and a turnover, coupled with some quick Wolverines free throws, brought the lead back down to 78-74 with 1:11 on the clock.
Michigan eventually fouled Hancock with 29.8 seconds left to play. He made two -- the biggest shots of the game were all Hancock's, these included -- and the Cardinals closed out the win in the final seconds.
The finish followed a first half that will last in college hoops lore. Burke, the unanimous national player of the year, picked up his second foul with 11:09 left in the half. He was replaced by Spike Albrecht, a 5-foot-11, largely unrecruited backup. Michigan coach John Beilein had to fight even his own staff members to get them to agree to take on Albrecht. He entered the game averaging 1.8 points in 7.6 minutes per game. In Burke's stead, Albrecht proceeded to have an absolutely legendary half: 17 points, 6-of-7 from the field (including 4-of-4 from 3-point territory) in 16 minutes. He had a mix of confident shooting and never-before-seen drives to the rim, all with the player of the year on the bench. Michigan shot 14-of-28 in the half and, with just 3:33 left, led 33-21.
That was roughly as mind-bending as what came next: four Hancock 3s on four straight possessions, all from the same spot at the right wing. Hancock was the hero of Louisville's national semifinal win over Wichita State on Saturday night, and he was here, too, bringing the staggered Cardinals back from the Albrecht-induced abyss.
Turning point: Albrecht's arrival in the game would be a good place to start, and Hancock's four straight 3s turned the game and saved Louisville from having to fight back from a devastating deficit with Burke itching to get off the bench. But the game was essentially level for most of the second half; it would need to be decided late.
After a back-and-forth sequence in the final minutes, Hancock's free throws truly sealed the game.
Key player: Hancock. Most of Hancock's production came during the first half, but you can't possibly overlook the importance of those four 3s. Without them, Louisville would have been facing a drastic deficit with Burke re-entering the game in the second 20. And Hancock's second-half additions -- a fifth 3 and those free throws -- were the most important shots of the second half.
Key stat: Louisville shot 8-of-16 from 3 and 18-of-23 from the free throw line. The former helped the Cards recover from an early deficit; the latter allowed them to finish the win late.