ATLANTA -- How did it feel to win? This needs to be asked of everyone, right here and now, because everyone won on Monday: Louisville, Kevin Ware, Rick Pitino, Spike Albrecht, Luke Hancock, John Beilein, 74,000 strong at the Georgia Dome, Trey Burke, you, me, our scratchy and hoarse voices and all of college basketball. Everyone. Except the refs.
Did it make you jump? Cause your throat to lump? Cheer? Make your jaw hit the floor harder than the flying Louisville and Michigan bodies under the rim? Cause you to laugh? Choke away a tear when a kid with a compound leg fracture hobbled onto a confetti-strewn court after the buzzer and cut the nets once the basket was lowered?
How about that soaring block by Burke? Although it wasn't officially registered in the books as a block, let's over-rule the refs and call a stuff a stuff, shall we? What a beginning by Michigan. What a comeback by 'Ville. What a home stretch by both. What a finish.
What. A. Championship. Game.
Today, as we cope with a hoops hangover, our spirits and faith in the greedy, sordid and hopelessly flawed college sports landscape was just restored considerably by two teams and two coaches and 40 minutes of heaven. The Cardinals and Wolverines had One Shining Moment all to themselves, a game's worth of thrills, guts, surprises and solid play. In turn, we were blessed with basketball at the highest level by a bunch of college kids who aced the final exam. It was Louisville 82, Michigan 76 in a game that may not make you forgive everything that's wrong about college sports, but will allow you to forget it for now, as you savor this for a long time.
These teams made half their shots, almost half their three-pointers, took turns seizing the lead, exchanging big plays and heroes and pulling the rug from one another. It was a one-point lead at the half. It was a four-point game with 80 seconds left. If it was not the perfect game; it felt like one.
"It does not get better than this," said Hancock, the Louisville sniper. "It does not get better!"
Well, maybe it could for Michigan. Not for Rick Pitino, though. He's the only person in America whose favorite day of the week is Monday, at least this one. His Monday was historic. His Monday made him a basketball legend, the first coach to win national titles with different schools, both in the same state at that. He's now more famous in Kentucky than Colonel Sanders. Oh, and several hours before tipoff, he was officially named to the basketball Hall of Fame. His Monday was 25 hours.
The last time he won, in 1996 with Kentucky, he was a brash and young coach. He's mellower, more patient, wiser and more secure with his place in the profession. And he's about to have more in common with his players than he thought possible. Pitino will now go get the tattoo he promised to his players if they won a championship. Something in Cardinal red, perhaps?
"It's just been an incredible run with the most enjoyable young men and the 13 toughest guys I've ever coached," Pitino said.
It doesn't get better for a 5-foot-11, 170-pound freshman who was nearly transformed into basketball folklore. The Cardinals didn't study their extensive scouting reports on Albrecht because they amounted to about two sentences. Albrecht? The kid with the floppy haircut, stumpy legs? The backup to Burke?
The point guard who came off the bench and dropped three-pointers and broke the press with ease and almost single-handedly gave Michigan a 12-point first-half lead? Oh. That Albrecht. Yeah.
"If there was a point guard I want coming off the bench, it's Spike," said Burke. "He's going to give you 100 percent effort. He's going to make plays for this team."
Last year around this time, his only scholarship offer was from Applachian State. His season-high in points was seven. Then he replaced a foul-troubled Burke and scored 17 points in 12 minutes. You had to love the way Beilein stuck with him, although the coach really didn't have a choice. This was Michael J. Fox in "Teen Wolf" come to life.
"I'd like to say thanks to coach Beilein for giving me this opportunity," Albrecht said. "He took a chance on me. It's something I'll never forget. When he recruited me, he told me we're here to win championships. As far as my performance, when I go out there, I'm confident. I was just hitting my shots. Teammates were finding me. I mean, that's about it."
How can it possibly get better for Hancock? He saw Albrecht and raised him one. Poor Albrecht. His 15 minutes of fame were erased in two minutes and 33 seconds. That's how long it took Hancock to drop 14 points. Quickly and efficiently, one unexpected hero was one-upped by another. Hancock gave Louisville the lead and the Cardinals never fell into a deep ditch the rest of the night.
Hancock followed up with a polished second half, too, and led Louisville with 22 points, the most scored by a reserve in the national championship game in 49 years.
"I was nervous about how well they were playing at first," said Hancock. "We were able to come back and our pressure wore them down a bit. I just try to play off my teammates. If I can just step in and hit an open shot, that's what I do."
It will get better for Burke. The NBA draft will see to that. He was the finest player on the floor and almost pulled off a comeback. He scored 24 points in 26 minutes. He sent a chill through Louisville in the second half when he sliced up the Cardinals defense repeatedly and stayed cool against the press. With five minutes left and Louisville up four, Burke denied a Peyton Siva dunk and then heard cheers … and a whistle. The good news for Burke is that, on the next level, which is where he's headed, they don't blow that whistle on that play.
"This hurts because of the amount of hard work we put in and the chances we gave ourselves," he said. "We were so close. It's tough to take when you're that close."
It doesn't get better for Siva. He got away with a phantom file but everything else about his night was earned. His quick hands collected four steals and found five teammates for baskets and helped him score 18 points, several on dashes to the rim. It was leadership personified by a tough senior who refused to allow Louisville to lose.
"This is what a team is," he said. "This is really what college basketball is all about, with a group of guys who are like family. With Kevin Ware going down like that, and everyone rallying around each other, we're truly blessed to be here with this trophy."
And even though he watched a championship unfold from the end of the bench, his right leg wrapped tightly, let's hope it gets even better for Ware. A week ago his gruesome injury horrified the nation. The First Lady called to check up on him. The composure and courage and strength he showed since then was commendable. He won't play again for another year, and may be restricted to a degree, but there's more to life than basketball for him, for all but a small percentage of folks who'll earn a living at it. If nothing else, his role in the Louisville title run -- part tragic, part inspirational -- will never be forgotten by his teammates and the school.
"It's really something you can't comprehend happening to yourself, your team, or anything like that," he said. "The whole year and especially the last few weeks, it's been a lot to deal with. But it helps when you have a team like this around you. You get moments like this."
College basketball doesn't get better than tugging at emotions Monday night in a dome. Contrary to fears, the national championship game wasn't upstaged by a lunatic coach at Rutgers who aimed basketballs at his players, or the mess of events that followed. The game made you forget the coaches who left schools to chase the money elsewhere, forget the NCAA and its way of doing business and policing schools, forget all that. For now.
Michigan and Louisville reminded everyone that, once the layers are peeled away, it's all about college kids and coaches and the drama they're capable of producing on any given night. Monday was one of those nights.
"A lot of times when you get to the Final Four," Pitino said, "you get to a championship game that's not always great, not always pretty. This was a great college basketball game. This was what it's all about."