April 9, 2013

On the 2014 Road to North Texas, NCAA champs have history of success here

Louisville won last national title settled in D-FW, could defend this one in Arlington

Louisville, the newly crowned NCAA men’s basketball champion, will have an opportunity to defend Monday’s title at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, site of the 2014 Final Four.

The venue should be a comfortable setting for Cardinals fans. The last time the Final Four came to Dallas-Fort Worth, Louisville won that one by defeating Duke 72-69 at Reunion Arena in Dallas.

There will be a lot more people in the stands next April in Cowboys Stadium than there were in 1986 in a sold-out Reunion Arena (16,493).

NCAA officials predict that the championship-game attendance record set Monday night, when 74,326 watched Louisville’s 82-76 victory over Michigan in the Georgia Dome, will fall next year in Cowboys Stadium.

Also in the crosshairs at JerryWorld will be the total attendance record set by the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta: 149,676 for both sessions, breaking the previous mark of 145,797 set in 2011 in Houston.

Early projections for Arlington attendance in 2014 call for 80,000 or more at both the Saturday semifinals session and the Monday night championship game. But that is next year’s issue.

As of Tuesday, Louisville coach Rick Pitino and his players were still busy celebrating the school’s third national championship. Louisville (35-5) made Pitino the first coach in history to win NCAA titles at multiple schools by rallying from a 12-point, first-half deficit to defeat Michigan (31-8). Pitino also won the 1996 title at Kentucky.

To win his second, Pitino’s team needed a second-half surge led by guards Luke Hancock (22 points) and Peyton Siva (18 points). The Cardinals also leaned on the strong work in the paint by forward Chane Behanan (15 points, 12 rebounds) and center Gorgui Dieng (8 points, 8 rebounds).

Louisville won its final 16 games, which will cause Pitino to make good on a promise he made to players earlier this season. That means he will be flashing some fresh artwork in Arlington if his team makes it to a third consecutive Final Four in 2014.

“About 12 or 13 games ago, these guys said, ‘If you win the national championship, coach, you are getting a tattoo,’ ” Pitino said. “I said, ‘Hell, yeah, I am getting a tattoo.’ ”

So Pitino, 60, will have that going for him in the near future. In the postgame news conference, Louisville players offered their coach ideas for his impending art work.

“Get my name,” said Siva, a senior floor leader. “I think that was our biggest motivation, was to get Coach P a tattoo.”

A close second was to secure a title for guard Kevin Ware, who suffered a compound fracture of his right leg during the team’s Elite Eight victory over Duke but made the trip to Atlanta and sat on the Cardinals’ bench during wins over Wichita State and Michigan.

In both contests, Louisville had to rally from 12-point deficits to cut down the nets after Monday’s title game. And Ware took part in the net-clipping ceremony when NCAA officials lowered the basket so that he could use scissors without climbing on a ladder.

“These are my brothers. They got the job done and I am so proud of them,” Ware said after securing his souvenir slice of the net.

To earn it, Louisville needed a pair of 20-point games at the Final Four from Hancock, a transfer from George Mason. Hancock, a player Pitino called “the best sixth man in the country,” came off the bench to score 14 of his 20 points during a second-half rally in the Cardinals’ 72-68 victory over Wichita State in the semifinals. Then, he topped that performance in Monday’s title game with a team-high 22 points, including 14 consecutive at one point in the first half while Louisville rallied from a 33-21 deficit.

“It was their four shooters against Luke,” Pitino said. “Luke more than held his own.”

Hancock became the first non-starter in tournament history to earn Most Outstanding Player honors at the Final Four and did so in front of his father, Bill, who attended the games despite battling a serious undisclosed illness.

“It’s been a long road. There’s really no way to describe how I feel that my dad was here,” Hancock said. “It just means a lot.”

It also means that Louisville, the team that won the last national championship settled in D-FW, will be the defending champs on the road to Arlington to decide the next title awarded in D-FW.

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