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Published: Wednesday, 4/10/2013

College bout shows sport at its finest

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The time it took for Connecticut to beat Butler in the 2011 NCAA mens’ basketball championship game is two hours or so of our lives we’ll never get back.

The final was something like 23-11. It is the night I promised myself I’d never waste another shining moment of mine watching such sludge. As a result, although I’m told a bunch of NBA players dressed in Kentucky uniforms won last year, I could not tell you who they defeated or by what score.

Anyway, I broke my promise Monday night — hey, two years, not bad for me — and it was worth it. If UConn-Butler represented the aesthetic worst of college hoops then Michigan-Louisville was its absolute best.

“You know, a lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you get to a championship, the game’s not always great, not always pretty,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “This was a great college basketball game.”

Pitino’s Cardinals won 82-76, but he got no argument from Michigan coach John Beilein.

“I enjoyed it,” the losing coach said.

How could anyone, rooting interest aside, not enjoy this one? It was everything a championship game should be with a non-stop tempo, lights-out shooting, offenses that knew how to finish, momentum changes sparked by intensity and hot hands and sheer will, not by slogging, clutch-and-grab defenses.

This was the type of game the 3-point arc was designed to create, and leave it to two guys coming off the bench to steal the show.

First it was Michigan’s Spike Albrecht, who averaged 1.8 points per game through his first 38 appearances of the year. He lit it up for 17 points in 16 first-half minutes and his final basket, a layup with just less than 4 minutes left in the half, gave UM a 33-21 lead.

Enter Louisville’s Luke Hancock, a hot cool hand if ever. Hardly recruited out of high school, he was at George Mason, a major contributor as a sophomore but suddenly disenchanted when coach Jim Larranaga left for Miami (Fla.). So he transferred and sat out a year, and when his minutes grew this season the Cards were transformed from the best defensive team in the nation into the most complete team.

The bearded one buried four 3-pointers and scored 14 straight Louisville points in the stretch run of the first half and all but made Albrecht’s contributions irrelevant. He added another trey and some key assists after halftime, and when it ended — with 22 points against UM and 42 in two games at the Georgia Dome — he became the first non-starter ever to be named the most outstanding player of the Final Four.

It capped a heartwarming story whereby Hancock’s gravely-ill father was able to make it to Atlanta to watch his son, who a week earlier had showed such compassion to badly injured teammate Kevin Ware.

Ware, sans crutches, was the last to cut a piece of the net, and he said it was “probably the best feeling” he’d ever had. Imagine that.

It was certainly among the best championship games ever.

In a week when the headlines were grabbed by a wacko coach and his fallout at Rutgers University, when other coaches engaged in the annual job jump to any place waving a bigger check, when the countdown to the NBA draft’s annual raid on the college game began, we needed a title game like this to remind us that college basketball, at its best, is still the best.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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