ATLANTA (AP) — Their best player was struggling and one of their main backups was on the bench with a broken legs.
Louisville still had more than enough to win its third national title.
Luke Hancock made four straight 3-pointers in the first half, and Peyton Siva and Chane Behanan had monster second halves to lead the top-seeded Cardinals to their first national title since 1986 on Monday night with an 82-76 victory over Michigan.
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Hancock finished with 22 points, including a perfect 5 for 5 from 3-point range. Siva had 14 of his 18 points in the second half, and Behanan had 11 of his 12 rebounds in the second half. Behanan also chipped in 15 points for Louisville (35-5).
While Siva leaped off the floor to hug his family when the buzzer sounded, a beaming Kevin Ware hobbled onto the court to join his teammates. Behanan picked up two cheerleaders and, with one in each arm, carried them to the mosh pit that quickly formed at center court.
Louisville wasn’t exactly deep before Ware snapped his tibia in the Midwest Regional final, and Pitino candidly said his absence was going to cause “problems” for the Cardinals. Having Russ Smith revert to his wild and “Russdiculous” ways after being so brilliant in the first five games of the tournament didn’t help matters.
Smith began the night 1 of 10, and finished with nine points on 3-of-16 shooting. It was his worst performance since the Big East title game, and well below the 25 points he’d averaged in the first five games of the tournament.
But adversity seems to mean nothing to the Cardinals. Ware’s gruesome injury — his bone protruded through the skin — would have left most teams reeling. But he became their inspiration instead, urging his teammates to “just go win the game” to get to the Final Four, then accompanying his teammates to his hometown of Atlanta just three days later.
And while his absence left Louisville short-handed, don’t underestimate the emotional lift he provided. The Cardinals tweaked their warm-up T-shirts to read “Ri5e to the Occasion,” with Ware’s No. 5 on the back. He had a seat at the end of the bench, clapping and yelling for his teammates and even hobbling onto the court for a team huddle when things looked bleak against Wichita State on Saturday night.
Ware wasn’t going to miss cutting down the nets Monday, drawing the loudest cheers when the basket was lowered so he could get his share.
In winning their final 16 games, the Cardinals always managed to find someone — anyone — to step up, and it wasn’t going to be any different when the stakes were at their highest.
Trailing by 12 — the same deficit they faced against Wichita State on Saturday night — late in the first half, Hancock made one, two, three and then a fourth 3-pointer. As his hand hung in the air after the last one, the Georgia Dome shook with cheers of “LUUUUUUKE!” for the guy who is so respected by his teammates he was made a team captain before he was eligible to play his first game for Louisville.
Siva fed Montrezl Harrell for a monster dunk and, just like that, Louisville had a 37-36 lead just before the half.
Michigan pulled within 54-52 with 12:07 to play on a deep, deep 3 by AP Player of the Year Trey Burke, who sat most of the first half after picking up two quick fouls. But then, Siva and Behanan simply took over.
The Cardinals had three players with three fouls — Hancock and Siva, included — and fears about their shortened rotation had made them cautious in Saturday night’s national semifinal. This time, however, it seemed to fire them up.
The 6-foot Siva looked about 6 inches taller as he scooped up a rebound took it all the way in for a layup, the first of three straight baskets. Behanan seemed to be everywhere under the basket, grabbing one rebound after another. Louisville outrebounded 32-27, including 20-10 in the second half.
Gorgui Dieng may have had a quiet night offensively — he had eight points — but he knocked down a short jumper to extend the lead to 65-61. Siva then scored on a backdoor dunk to make it 67-62 with 6:25 left, and the game was essentially over.