An incredible start

ATLANTA – The ball went up, Michigan tried for it, Louisville grabbed it. Up again, same result. Up again, off someone’s hands, off another, back up for Louisville – and this time in. Time was ticking. The plays were not working. Destiny was leaving, lifting off, flying away, until, with a smile and a “sorry,” it kissed the other team.

And the game was over.

Burn the nets, then cut them down. For half the game Monday night, that was Michigan’s plan and Michigan’s execution. But by the end of this exhausting, exhilarating and exultant championship night, it was Louisville’s story.

Whoa, Blue.

The season is over. It ended a few minutes short of glory, a few possessions too wild and crazy, a few line-ups that were just too new and awkward for a team that knew itself so well. Michigan put it all out there, but the Cardinals put it in more often, too many put-backs, too many open shots, too many steals, too many grabs and baskets.

“We beat a great basketball team,” Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach, said. “Probably because I have the 13 toughest guys I have ever coached.”

After nearly a quarter-century, the Wolverines came close to another title. But they ran into a buzzsaw, well-coached by Pitino – who has now won a title with two different schools – and led by senior Peyton Siva and sixth-man Luke Hancock (22 points), the Cardinals took advantage of a discombobulated Michigan line-ups, and captured the national championship, 82-76.

Whoa, Blue.

An incredible start

It was wild, it was furious, it was playground ball inside a football stadium. And if there were nerves at the start, they didn’t show. Michigan came out on rocket fuel, racing up and down the floor, with Trey Burke scoring the first seven points on a flying bank shot, a three-point bomb, and a flip-in lay-up. But Louisville matched the Wolverines speed for speed. The first five minutes seemed to be played in 60 seconds, and the crowd – featuring everyone from Bill Russell to Travis Tritt- settled in for a breathless basketball game.

And then came Spike Albrecht.

And it got more breathless.

Entering the game to spell Burke, who had one foul, Albrecht, the 5-foot-11 freshman who does not appear, at first blush, to spend much time on the weight room or in the sun, lined up one long three-pointer – bang! Lined up another – bang! Burke came back, Spike stayed in, took another three-pointer from halfway to Florida – bang again!

It was the start of perhaps the most remarkable bench performance in modern NCAA memory. On the biggest stage, in front of nearly 75,000 screaming fans, a kid who averaged less than two points a game became a scoring machine. When a terrible foul call put Burke on the bench again, Albrecht simply took over. He drove the lane and tossed one in. He drove again and got fouled. He scored 17 points in less than 17 minutes, had his career highs in points, minutes and rebounds – all before halftime – and, most incredibly, made everyone temporarily forget that the national player of the year was stuck on the bench.

In fact, for a while, it looked as if Michigan might put away Louisville without Burke ever breaking another sweat. But then came the Cardinals version of “A Star Is Born.” Luke Hancock, a junior forward who comes off the bench, began throwing in treys with aplomb. Four up. Four in. U-M’s lead evaporated like moisture being blown off by a defroster.

That might have been the game right there.

Michigan saw a 12-point lead wither and die, until, after a turnover, up went a lob to Montrezl Harrell – who slammed the ball so hard, he brought the noise down with him – and for the first time, Louisville had the lead.

A few seconds later, both teams went into halftime.

And we all fainted.

An incredible run

“It’s just a great basketball game,” U-M coach John Beilein told CBS at halftime. “Look a those storylines out there…. We were hot and then they got hot. … If the second half is the same way, it’s gonna be one of the best games ever….”

Best game or not, no matter what happened, this was already a great story for Michigan hoops. A national championship game? Even the football team hadn’t had one of those in a while. These Wolverines, at the start of the season, were supposed to be good.

Not this good.

True, they cruised through the nonconference schedule undefeated, rose to No.1 in the nation for a brief but glorious week, then stumbled and finished the season with six victories and six losses, looking highly mortal and decidedly non-inspirational.

If you recall, most experts had them exiting the tournament on the first weekend, if not to upstart South Dakota State then certainly to the “havoc” defense of frustrating Virginia Commonwealth.

Instead, U-M thumped them both, advanced to the Sweet 16 and grew up before our eyes. In the traditional of great Big Dance runs, the Wolverines had a consistent star, carved a couple of statement performances, discovered new heroes along the way, and had one squeaker that served as rocket fuel for the rest of the run. The Kansas victory in overtime was clearly a turning point.

They reached Atlanta with a vengeance, destroying Florida in the Elite Eight. And once inside the Georgia Dome, they reused to be dazzled by the lights. On Saturday night – with Burke nowhere near his spectacular self, and terrible shooting by Tim Hardaway Jr. – they made a statement against the toughest defense in the tournament, using bench players and another Mitch McGary McMiracle to shed the Syracuse web and survive a frenetic final two minutes to advance.

That left only Monday night. One game. Forty minutes to make forever history.

The first half used every accolade you could think of.

And then came the finish…

The signs of trouble

Sadly, the second half was not a mirror of the first. It was less a long-range shooting contest than a test of survival and lot of floorboard. Albrecht would not score another point. McGary would sit with fouls. There were turnovers, steals, bad defense by both teams, bad calls by the referees, players hitting the deck, and hitting it again.

Mostly, there was a lack of rhythm for Michigan. Perhaps it was Burke feeling the rust of sitting most of the first half – and people will second-guess Beilein sitting him for that long. Perhaps it was the third and fourth fouls on McGary, which took the story of this tournament and closed the cover on it. Perhaps it was the bad defense played by the Wolverines.

Or perhaps it was just Louisville, which always seemed to have someone moving, stealing, laying the ball in or grabbing a loose rebound. Chane Behanan had 12 boards and simply outmuscled Michigan. And Siva, not the tallest or fastest, nonetheless is the perfect college point guard, controlling tempo, always there. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds, four steals and five assists. The season-long criticism of the Wolverines – that they don’t play very good defense – began to ring true. Too many open shots. Too many offensive rebounds surrendered.

When Gorgui Dieng threw in a hook shot with just over four minutes left, Louisville had an eight-point lead, 73-65, its biggest of the night, and you could feel the air going out of this Wolverines journey. It was as if Michigan had thrown all the pixie dust out of the satchel in the first half. Albrecht lost the ball. Burke missed a shot. Rebounds were stolen. Passes went awry.

Until finally, with the clock winding down its final minute, Burke – the sophomore who would only play 26 minutes in likely his last game as a Wolverine – tried what he tried before and pulled off incredibly – a long, long three-pointer – and it hit nothing but the floor.

There would be no more scoring.

And no more season.

Whoa, Blue.

A bright future

And so it ends. But what a run. The best part of a long March Madness story is the way you get to know a team. It’s like a long jazz number, where all the players, at some point, get a solo.

So here’s Albrecht, who looks small but plays huge, and who will never go anywhere without people saying, “My gosh, that first half… wow.”

And here’s Nik Stauskas, a freshman, the pride of Mississauga, Ontario, shooting the lights out against Florida – as he did so many nights in his backyard, the sun setting.

Here’s Jordan Morgan, who lost his starting spot to McGary, taking a charge against Syracuse’s Brandon Triche with 19 seconds left in the semifinal, and slamming home the last two points of that game to propel his school into Monday night.

There were huge contributions from all three of the Famous Names Bunch – Hardaway, Glenn Robinson III, Jon Horford. And, of course, they are not here if Burke doesn’t lay his magic out every night, especially his fairway length three-pointer to push the team into overtime against Kansas.

And who had a fresher story than McGary – from bench player to starter to star to NBA first-round projection – all in a month? McGary was like watching one of the genius babies in the movies that starts talking really early and by the end of the film is running the family.

Yes, together, under Beilein’s guidance, they just lost the championship game. But what they have done is restore a roar. Before you can be champions, you have to be relevant. And for too many years, Michigan basketball wasn’t even relevant. Now, that’s gone. It’s a first-rate school with first-rate facilities and a Final Four program that has every right to expect that standard from here on in.

This team equaled the Fab Five’s accomplishments. These Wolverines deserve their own page in the book. And they will have it. Years from now, this Monday may be remembered as “the Spike game” or “the too many fouls on McGary game” or the “why couldn’t they stop Hancock?” game. But it should also be remembered as the end of an incredible season, and the start of bigger things.

Whoa, Blue. Michigan burned the nets pretty thoroughly. They just didn’t get to cut them down.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

 

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