ATLANTA — As one short but imposing strand of net sat in Luke Hancock’s pocket, there was no sense of impatience on his bearded face. He answered questions. He smirked when something sparked his humor. He watched himself on the stretched screens hanging all around the Georgia Dome, not wanting to miss his starring role in the annual college basketball coronation, “One Shining Moment.”
Hancock allowed the moment to linger, his team’s championship secure.
Coming off the bench for the Louisville Cardinals like he had in all but eight games this season, the overlooked sharpshooter became the first non-starter to ever capture Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
“It doesn’t get better than this, it’s unbelievable,” said Hancock, who scored a team-high 22 points Monday night for the national champion Cardinals in their 82-76 win over Michigan. “It does not get better than this.”
Once the media scattered around the confetti-dotted landscape, Hancock walked away from the dismembered nets and off the platform floor to find his family. He did not have to search; they sat right behind the Cardinals bench throughout their time in Atlanta. Front row seats.
He first found his mother, Van. The long wait was no bother for her. She quickly hugged her freshly-crowned champion.
“I’ll wait till the end of the Earth,” she said. “I’m patient. I’ll wait for him. I want him to be doing this and just having a ball.”
He then turned to his father, Bill, who is suffering from an ailment the family has yet to disclose. It is believed and reported to be serious. Bill remained seated as he had throughout the celebratory ceremony. To compensate, his 6-foot-8 son stooped over to block out the noise, to create a sense of quiet in a sea of screaming fans and clicking cameras, to share in a long exchange.
For a man who nearly could not make the trip to Atlanta, he sure looked pleased that he did.
“It’s been a long road. There’s really no way to describe how I feel that my dad was here. It’s hard to put into words,” Hancock said. “It just means a lot.”
After watching him carry this fast-paced Louisville team through its rough stretches this Final Four — first in a comeback win over ninth-seeded Wichita State, then to help keep up with the explosive and efficient Wolverines — it’s tough not to wonder if Rick Pitino could have captured his second national title without Hancock. After all, the George Mason transfer was not always guaranteed to end up a Cardinal. It took a year of prep school for Division I colleges to even take notice, and then it took Jim Larranaga moving on from George Mason to Miami for him to start looking elsewhere. He said that during that search, Pitino and his staff made him feel at home.
And that’s been an overarching theme to this talented collection of Cardinals. NCAA tournament leading scorer Russ Smith was scarcely recruited out of high school. Tim Henderson, the walk-on who stepped in for Kevin Ware and played the pseudo-hero against Wichita State, was writing letters to Pitino begging to be on the team just a few years ago.
Then there’s Hancock, the one who eventually refused to allow their title to slip away.
Before he hit his first field goal of the evening, Michigan, the nation’s No. 1 offense, had little difficulty with Louisville’s top-rated defense. With three minutes remaining in the first half, the Wolverines led 35-23 — a sizable deficit in today’s scoring-deficient landscape of college basketball. Then Hancock got it going.
First came one 3-pointer.
Then another. Then another.
Then, yes, even another.
In less than two minutes, Hancock had scored 14 straight points for Louisville on four consecutive 3s and two free throws, cutting the deficit all the way down to one point heading into the half.
“I think that’s what changed the game for us going into halftime,” forward Chane Behanan said.
When all was said and done, Hancock hit five of his six shots (5-for-5 from 3-point range) and stood clutching onto the NCAA national championship trophy during the post-game press conferences and locker room visits. He wasn’t letting go; he was, on the other hand, posing for pictures.
So much of Louisville’s final push toward the 2013 title is centered around the narrative of Kevin Ware, the Atlanta native and backup guard who gruesomely broke his leg in the Elite Eight against Duke — and for good reason. Since the injury, Ware has become a national fascination and a beacon of inspiration for the Cardinals. When the team trailed Wichita State late in the national semifinals, it was Ware who hobbled on his crutches into the team huddle. It was Ware for whom the baskets were lowered Monday night, so he could cut down the final strand of the net.
In that story’s wake, though, and perhaps for the better, other stories concerning the program and its athletes and their families’ trials went largely unnoticed. But, as Smith pointed out from below the shadow of a black championship hat, there was a greater meaning to the title game for every Cardinal player.
“Everybody was playing for somebody. As a team, we were playing for Kev,” Smith said. “But everyone had people on their mind, so it was about everyone coming together with their emotions and channeling that in the right way.”
Hancock appeared reluctant to leave his family’s side for the interviews and celebration to come for that exact reason.
Given Bill’s condition, his family planned to head back and get some rest, unable to partake in the festivities to come. After one last look, Hancock ushered himself along the roped path of security guards, past the Louisville band and student sections, past the outreached hands, past Michigan’s famed Fab Five, past the enlarged photo of archrival Kentucky’s 2012 title celebration and on toward his jubilant locker room.
He did not sneak a glance back to see his mother watching, smiling.
“I hope he has the time of his life,” she said. “He deserves it.”