Mark Wiedmer: Rick Pitino earns fireworks for historic NCAA title

Mark Wiedmer: Rick Pitino earns fireworks for historic NCAA title

April 9th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino celebrates after the team defeated Michigan 82-76 during the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA - With Louisville's first national championship in 27 years complete, confetti fell from the Georgia Dome rafters late Monday night. Fireworks exploded. And Louisville coach Rick Pitino flinched, as if dodging gunfire. It was the only time he blinked in six NCAA tournament games.

It's also why he didn't join history Monday only when he was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in the morning. With Louisville's 82-76 victory over Michigan, Pitino became the first coach to win it all at two different schools, his first ring having come 17 years ago while coaching Louisville's bitter rival Kentucky.

No wonder CBS analyst Greg Anthony said immediately afterward, "I really thought at the end of the day that the difference was Rick Pitino."

By the stat sheet, the difference was Cardinals reserve guard Luke Hancock. The junior transfer from George Mason became the tourney's most outstanding player by scoring 22 points off the bench, 16 coming in the first half when he ran off 14 in a row inside the final four minutes to all but erase a 12-point Michigan lead.

"It's just the heart of this team," Hancock said afterward. "We just needed to rally after being down the last couple of games."

Hancock, of course, scored 20 off the bench in Saturday's semifinal comeback victory over Wichita State. Given that the last Louisville coach to win a national championship, Denny Crum, was known as Cool Hand Luke, perhaps it's time to label Hancock Cool Hand Luke II, or Cool Hand Luke, Too.

Yet it wasn't just Hancock, or point guard Peyton Siva (18 points, five assists, four steals), or forward Chane Behanan, who scored 15 and grabbed 12 massive rebounds.

It was all the Cardinals being just a little bit better than the Wolverines in almost every key stat. They pulled down five more rebounds, shot it a little better from the foul line (78 percent to 72 percent) and the 3-point line (50 percent to 44 percent), shared it much better (18 assists to 12) and turned it over a little less (9 to 12).

No wonder when Pitino was asked why he'd won, he answered, "Probably because I've got the 13 toughest guys I've ever coached."

And they surely are. And in a game that was both brilliantly played and wonderfully unpredictable throughout. Consider this one moment from Sunday, Michigan coach John Beilein wrapping up his news conference.

"It is that mystery of the young kid," he began, "the altar boy, the choir boy like Spike [Albrecht] , the 18-year-old kid who hasn't played well coming in, then making big baskets that makes this game so great."

The coach appeared to be speaking of his baby-faced freshman's two huge 3-pointers in the Wolverines' semifinal win over Syracuse the previous night.

Or maybe he knew something bigger. Maybe he knew that Albrecht -- all 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds of him -- was about to put on an extraordinary shooting clinic, hitting all four of his 3-point tries on his way to 17 points before the break. Just call him Altar-Ego boy, channeling his inner Larry Bird.

Yet surprising as it might seem, Albrecht's heroics only guided Michigan to a 38-37 halftime lead because of a similarly stunning performance by Hancock.

And yet nothing has been more stunning the past few days than Pitino himself. His Hall of Fame spot on Monday morning. His son, Richard, becoming the Minnesota coach last week. His horse, Goldencents, not only winning the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday but also racing to victory at almost the exact same moment that U of L reserve Tim Henderson swished two 3s to cut a 12-point Wichita State lead in half. And now this, his history-making title.

A few weeks ago, the Cardinals beginning to roll, his players told him that if they won the title the 60-year-old coach had to get a tattoo.

"Now these are guys who get a tattoo every time they say hello," Pitino said as he brushed confetti off his suit. "But, [heck] yes, I'm getting a tattoo."

Why not? He's pretty much already got everything else these days.