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ATLANTA — As he ran off the court and toward the locker room of the Michigan men’s basketball team, Mitch McGary made an emphatic declaration, one that wasn’t just fueled by adrenaline but by emotion.
“We’re not done yet!” the 6-foot-10 freshman forward shouted in the minutes after the Wolverines’ 61-56 win Saturday over Syracuse.
Because now, one game stands between two teams and a national title.
McGary’s Wolverines face Louisville at 9:23 p.m. today at the Georgia Dome for the national championship, a realm that’s familiar to the Cardinals but uncharted territory for the Wolverines for the last two decades.
But having the chance to play in the last night of the season completes a certain vision Michigan point guard Trey Burke had for his team.
“The program hasn’t been this far in two decades, so just to be back in this situation definitely means the world to the alumni and means the world to us,” said Burke, whose program won its last national title in 1989 and played in its last national title game in 1993, the latter a milestone that was later expunged because of school and NCAA sanctions.
“That’s been our No. 1 goal since Day One. We came into practice with that. Last year, when I came back I announced to the media that I wanted to come back and win a national championship because I understood the type of talent we had coming in.
“A lot of people looked at me like I was crazy, but now that we’re here, it just goes to show the type of team that we have and the type of team that we saw we had at the beginning of the year.”
The Wolverines (31-7) are fueled by a certain youthful enthusiasm as well as the creativity of Burke and the tournament emergence of McGary as a force inside the paint.
“It’s exhausting, but this is a thrill,” said McGary, who leads the Wolverines with 16 points a game and 11.6 rebounds a game in five tournament games. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
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But Burke considered another aspect that could factor into tonight’s national title game.
“It’s going be skill involved in the matchup, but a lot of it is going to be a battle of will,” said Burke, who on Sunday won the Naismith Award, given annually to the top player in college basketball. “It’s definitely going to be a fun game out there playing against [Louisville guards] Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, it’s going to be a challenge — a challenge we probably haven’t seen all year with their pressure and their capability of penetrating.”
Louisville (34-5), meanwhile, entered this year’s tournament as one of the championship favorites, but it became one of the nation’s emotional favorites after sophomore guard Kevin Ware suffered a broken right leg eight days ago in an 85-63 win over Duke — a horrifying injury that the Cardinals said has further bonded the Cardinals as a team in pursuit of a championship.
“The injury, it’s a bad thing, but it’s a good thing at the same time,” said Louisville forward Chase Behanan, whose team enters the title game on a 15-game winning streak. “It could be a movie, a story.”
But while Behanan looks ahead at what could be for the Cardinals, who make their third appearance in the national championship game, the Wolverines have chosen to stay in a certain place — in each moment that the final days of college basketball brings.
“[Sunday] is a normal prep day,” Burke said. “But it’s definitely not going to feel normal because this is the national championship. We have to go into this game with the same focus and the same mind-set that we’ve had all year.”
And when it comes to preparation, neither team has a noted advantage.
“If we're good enough to win a championship, we know we have to play a great game to beat Michigan,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “With one-day prep, this is probably the toughest prep day we’ll ever have with how many things they run.”
Wolverines coach John Beilein said Sunday he began watching film on the Cardinals — a team that’s trademarked by its ability to play a pressure defense and force turnovers — before 6 in the morning, and that one day of preparation makes it impossible to put together the consummate game plan.
But tonight is the final game of the season, with only two teams left playing in one game. And Michigan gets its shot at a moment that’s been more than two decades in the making.
“What you’re hoping is that you’ve been getting ready for that since October 15th,” said Beilein, who has coached Michigan to its sixth appearance in the national title game. “You don’t know whether you are, but you’ve got to dribble it strong, you’ve got to pivot well, pass well, play with your eyes up. Those are things these guys have been working on all year long.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.