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ATLANTA — Eight days ago, while others recoiled in horror, while his coach tried to fight back tears, Luke Hancock rushed to the side of his fallen Louisville teammate. He knelt over Kevin Ware, offered reassurance and helped calm Ware by saying a prayer. He was the epitome of composure in the dread and chaos of the situation. Nothing, it seemed, could rattle Hancock.

What transpired over the next eight days proved that show of poise was more than an isolated incident. When Louisville stumbled in the semifinals against Wichita State, Hancock was there to pick them up. And when they were desperate for a spark in Monday night's national championship game against Michigan, once again Hancock rose to the occasion and provided the impetus for an 82-76 conquest of Michigan in the frenzy of the Georgia Dome.

It's sometimes said that the best basketball team doesn't necessarily walk away with the title. That's probably a fallacy in the case of the Cardinals. But even if some want to argue the point, is their any doubt there's no more resilient team than the one that made Rick Pitino the first coach to win national titles at two schools?

During the offseason the Cardinals doubted whether Hancock could play the season. He had undergone shoulder surgery and could barely lift his arms. The team trainer told Pitino that only a player with extraordinary resolve could fight through the pain. Hancock, it turned out, was that player.

Then there was the injury to Ware that left Louisville with diminished backcourt depth, no small issue for a team that relies on constant pressure defense to drive opponents to fatigue. And, lastly, there was the situation involving Hancock's father, who is seriously ill but made the journey from Roanoke, Va., to sit behind the Louisville bench and watch his son emerge as the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Luke hadn't even told his teammates of the gravity of the situation.

Louisville (35-5) looked dead, overwhelmed with three minutes left in the first half. The Wolverines (31-8) were up 12, cruising, controlling the boards, pushing for a blowout. Everything was going their way. And then, in a two-minute snap, Hancock brought Louisville back with a sizzling display, just as he had when the Cards trailed Wichita State by 12 with 13 minutes left in the semifinals.

The threes were falling from everywhere as Hancock, a 6-foot-6 junior transfer, scored 14 straight Louisville points in a 14-3 burst that had the Cards within 38-37 at the half. He finished with a team-high 22, adding a three that extended the lead to 10 with just over three minutes to play.

“I just thought we needed something,” Hancock said. “I tried to do whatever I could to help the team. I just hit a few shots.”

“We just wait and Luke makes big plays,” said Cards guard Russ Smith. “When something's not going down, I know one of us is willing to take that big shot and just take the knockout shot. We're not scared of anything.”

Michigan had arrived at its 12-point lead in startling fashion. With Trey Burke, the national player of the year, benched with two fouls backup freshman point guard Spike Albrecht went on a rampage en route to 17-first half points, 10 more than his single-game career high. And on the bench, Burke remained while Hancock carried Louisville back into contention. Michigan coach John Beilein, the Burt native who was looking to cap a remarkable career journey with a national title, said time and circumstance dictated such.

“If they had done that earlier in the half, if they had done that around the 10-minute mark, we may have used him late,” Beilein said of Burke. “But the fact that it came so late, I would never play Trey with two minutes to go in the first half. That would be crazy. And you can see he had four fouls anyhow.

“The mind-set of coaches today is if a guy's got two fouls, he's going to attack him and he's going to attack him and he's going to attack him. So you're just going to give up baskets. We're up by one at half and the player of the year in every poll everywhere was not in. So we felt really good at halftime.”

Just as Burke's foul situation impacted the end of the first half, a fourth foul on Michigan freshman sensation Mitch McGary impacted the second. Louisville was up two when Hancock, on a pump fake, lured the 6-10 McGary into foul No. 4 with 9:11 left. By the time he returned, with 4:34 remaining, the Cards led by seven.

“A big difference was a couple of those offensive putbacks they got late in the game,” Beilein said. “When Mitch is not out there, especially in the NCAA Tournament, let's just put it this way: When Mitch is out there he's a difference-maker.”

The foul situation did the Wolverines no favors, but Louisville was a different team in the second half. The Cards amped up their defensive intensity. They went to the rim with ferocity, led by senior guard Peyton Siva (18 points, 14 in the second half) and 6-8 sophomore forward Chane Behanan (15 points, 12 rebounds). Louisville scored 12 points in the paint in the first half, 22 in the second. They also decimated the Wolverines on the boards, 20-10, after intermission, and that didn't all come with McGary on the bench.

“Offensively they just found a way to get to the rim and also get rebounds on us,” said Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III. “We needed a couple more stops.”

Burke picked up for Albrecht in the second half and finished with 24 points in what could be his final college game. The sophomore is expected to declare for the NBA draft.

“We fought for 40 minutes,” Burke said. “There was never any point where we gave up. Louisville was just a really solid team. I felt like we could have turned them over a couple more times but they took care of the ball and they hit foul shots.”

It wasn't all Hancock's doing, just the part of it that mattered most. He restored Louisville's faith and finished the Final Four with 42 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 8 of 10 from three.

“I bet this is the best day of his life, so happy, so proud of him,” Stephan Van Treese said. “He put in so much work and for everything he's done, he definitely talks the talk and walks the walk.”

“These are my brothers,” said Ware, who watched the Final Four from alongside the Louisville bench. “They got the job done and I am so proud of them.”



email: bdicesare@buffnews.com