‘It doesn’t get better than this’
Cardinals' Hancock steps up on game's biggest stage
ATLANTA -- Luuuuuuuukkkkkkee!
The sound floated down from the stands in the Georgia Dome on Louisville’s championship night, a tribute to Cardinals forward Luke Hancock. He better get used to the chant because he just placed himself in Louisville lore.
Hancock equaled his career high with 22 points on 5 of 6 shooting, including a perfect, record-setting 5 of 5 behind the arc to help Louisville defeat Michigan 82–76 and win its third national title and first since 1986. He was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, the first non-starter to receive the award in the history of the tournament.
“It doesn’t get better than this, it’s unbelievable,” he said.
What thought to be a highly anticipated match-up of two of the top point guards in the country, Trey Burke of Michigan and Russ Smith of Louisville, took a backseat on this night. Both were overshadowed by Hancock and Michigan freshman Spike Albrecht, who stole the show in the first half.
“I just try to play off Russ and Peyton [Siva], and Wayne [Blackshear],” Hancock said. “They’re so good at getting you open shots. Gorgui [Dieng] found me for a couple of those.
“But I just tried to play with them,” he went on. “They’re the guys who are usually scoring all the points. If I can step in and hit an open shot, or just help out, I do. Russ and Peyton lead the show, and I just try to play off of them.”
Hancock became the first player since Ron Mercer of Kentucky to score 20 points off the bench in the championship game. He scored in double figures in 16 games this season. His increased playing time during Louisville’s season-ending 16-game winning streak helped turn the Cardinals into a more efficient team.
“As soon as we started playing Luke Hancock more,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, “our half-court offense evolved into something that was very special.”
But during the first half, it seemed like 27 years of bad memories would continue for the Louisville faithful who saw many of their starters struggling from the field.
That’s when Hancock hit four consecutive 3-pointers, all within steps from one another just right of the top of the key in a span of two minutes in the first half. The fourth of those shots came with 1:00 to go in the first half to bring Louisville within a point, 36-35. He single-handily erased all but a point of the Michigan lead, shifted momentum and the ultimately, the direction of the championship game.
The second half saw the Cardinals take control, after trading buckets with the Wolverines, took the lead with 15:05 to play and never relinquish it. As Michigan began to key on Hancock, Louisville took advantage.
Siva and Smith suddenly found themselves with open looks. Siva had 14 points in the second half and Smith added five more as the Cardinals extended their lead up to as many as 10 points when Hancock hit his final three of the game with 3:27 left, all but sealing the game for Louisville.
Michigan would get as close as four points, but two free throws apiece by Hancock and Siva closed it out and secured the championship for the Cardinals.
It seemed like poetic justice for Hancock and this Louisville team, which became even more inspired to win a title when their teammate Kevin Ware broke his leg on March 31 during the Midwest Regional. It was Hancock who first went over to Ware as he lay badly injured on the Lucas Oil Stadium floor, holding his hand and saying a prayer with him, comforting his fallen teammate the best he could.
When asked what he said to Ware after the game, he said, “Just that I loved him, and we didn’t have to say much.”
Words weren’t needed, the feelings were there. Hancock had been inspired by his fallen teammate as much as the others, but it was Hancock who lifted up all of his teammates he refers to as brothers when they needed him most, to keep fighting for a teammate and live the dream.