These days, it is good to be Rick Pitino.
The Louisville men’s basketball coach hit the daily double of a lifetime Monday, earning official entrance into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on the same day that his Cardinals defeated Michigan 82-76 in the Georgia Dome to make Pitino the first coach in NCAA Tournament history to win national titles at two different schools.
“I just say it’s a lucky day,” said Pitino, 60. “I can give you some years where I can name [luck going] the other way. So you take it in stride.”
Monday night, Pitino’s team took it to Michigan. And Michigan gave it right back in a classic battle that set a championship-game attendance record (74,326) that will give the folks at JerryWorld a target to shoot for — and obliterate — next April in Arlington.
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The Cardinals eventually prevailed, honoring injured teammate Kevin Ware in the process, because their guards not named Russ Smith stepped up with clutch plays on a night when Smith, Louisville’s most dynamic player, left his shooting touch in the locker room. Smith made just 3 of 16 shots.
But point guard Peyton Siva (18 points) and backup Luke Hancock (team-high 22 points, including 16 in the first half) would not let the Cardinals wilt under a strong offensive barrage from Michigan’s talented freshmen and a second-half salvo from Trey Burke (game-high 24 points), the national player of the year.
Based on other recent events in Pitino’s life, the outcome should have surprised no one. Within the past week, his son Richard — a former Louisville assistant — became the head basketball coach at Minnesota and his horse, Goldencents, emerged as a Kentucky Derby favorite by winning Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby.
Although Pitino is only a part-owner of the horse, which cashed a 6-1 win ticket, he acknowledged that Monday’s triumph added the cap to a dream week that may never be duplicated.
“With us, it’s just about winning,” Pitino said. “That’s great. The horse race — I hope you guys bet and made some money. ... Outside of that, Richard getting the Minnesota job is one of the best things that could ever happen to me.”
Also high on the list of “best things that could happen” to Pitino were Monday’s proceedings in the Georgia Dome, where the Cardinals (35-5) proved more relentless in crunch time than the Wolverines (31-8).
Leading the way in the paint was forward Chane Behanan, who finished with a double-double (15 points, 12 rounds) that included seven offensive rebounds — all in the second half. Behanan and center Gorgui Dieng (8 points, 8 rebounds) neutralized the impact of Michigan freshman Mitch McGary, who had his fewest points (6) and rebounds (6) during the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament run.
McGary had come into the game averaging 16 points and 11.6 rebounds per game in the NCAA Tournament.
“We beat a great basketball team probably because I had the 13 toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” said Pitino, who had Ware join in the postgame net-clipping ceremony despite a broken leg. Ware broke his leg in the team’s Elite Eight triumph over Duke and sat on the bench Monday, offering inspiration to his teammates.
“We’re a team that plays hard and is willing to do anything to win to get to the next level,” said Smith, a junior who finished with nine points. “We really wanted to win this one for Kevin. All our guys have a fierceness about them that you can’t match. I think we showed that tonight.”
It was especially true in the second half, when Louisville took the lead for good on a pair of Behanan free throws with 13:50 remaining and eventually stretched the lead to 76-66 before the Wolverines rallied.
The game was a classic from the outset. With Michigan’s Fab Five from yesteryear in attendance, the Wolverines’ current collection of freshmen put on a stunning exhibition in the first half.
Led by reserve point guard Spike Albrecht, Michigan’s freshmen combined to score 26 consecutive points for the Wolverines and helped them build a 35-23 lead. Albrecht had 17 first-half points in relief of Burke, who spent the final 14 minutes of the half on the bench after picking up his second foul.
But Louisville rallied in the first half behind a hot-shooting backup guard of its own. Hancock hit 4 of 4 from behind the arc and scored 14 consecutive points for the Cardinals, cutting the Michigan advantage to 38-37 at halftime.
Hancock finished the night by hitting 5 of 5 from behind the arc as well as 7 of 10 from the foul line to help Louisville clinch its third national championship in school history — making it a great day to be Rick Pitino.