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ATLANTA — The national championship game began as a series of storybook moments for a kid from a small town in Indiana.
It became a shooting gallery of sorts for a bearded swingman from the Appalachian foothills of Virginia.
But Monday night in a Southern metropolis, a guard from the Pacific Northwest helped decide the victor of the final game of the final night of the season.
And the University of Michigan men’s basketball team could only dwell on how a national title got away.
Peyton Siva’s second-half efforts helped the Cardinals to an 82-76 win over Michigan and helped Louisville to its first national championship in men’s basketball since 1986.
“It hurts a lot,” said Michigan point guard Trey Burke, who scored a game-high 24 points. “Just to get to the national championship game, just to play for the national championship, it hurts so much. A lot of people didn't expect us to even get this far. A lot of people didn't expect us to even get past the second round.
“You know, we fought. We fought all the way up to this point.”
PHOTO GALLERY: NCAA Final Four championship game
Siva, a Seattle product, scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half to help the Cardinals rally from a 12-point deficit with less than four minutes left in the first half.
Michigan (31-8), playing in its first national title game since 1993 and for its first title since 1989, was unable to keep pace with Louisville in the second half, despite the fact that early on it was fueled by its transition game, a 17-rebound effort in the first half and the play of its guards — notably Indiana native Spike Albrecht.
With Burke called for his second foul less than nine minutes into the game, Albrecht took the pressure — and, seemingly, the spotlight — off the sophomore point guard by hitting six of his first seven shots, and Albrecht seemed to captivate the 74,326 inside the Georgia Dome with a 4-for-4 effort from the 3-point arc in the first half.
“That was probably going back to my high school days,” Albrecht said of his hot hand. “Trey, with two fouls, Coach [John] Beilein doesn't play guys with two fouls in the first half, so I knew I was in the rest of the half. I was just, fortunately, hitting shots. Teammates were finding me.”
But while Siva provided the spark for a second half, Luke Hancock brought energy to the Cardinals (35-5) in the first half. Hancock, a swingman from Roanoke, Va., scored 22 points, including 16 in the first half, and picked up where Albrecht left off. His 4-for-4 performance in the final three minutes before halftime helped Louisville slash a 10-point deficit to one — Hancock hit his fourth 3-pointer with exactly one minute left in the half to cut Michigan’s lead to 36-35.
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“I just tried to play off Russ [Smith] and Peyton,” Hancock said. “They’re so good at getting the open shots, and Gorgui [Dieng] found me for a couple of those but I just tried to play with them. They’re the guys who are usually scoring all the points. If I can step in and hit an open shot or just try to help out, I do, but Russ and Peyton lead the show and I just try to play off of them.”
Still, the Wolverines took a 38-37 lead at the half on a pair of free throws by Glenn Robinson III.
“We were still up,” Robinson, the Wolverines forward who scored 12 points, said of halftime. “I thought we did a good job of staying positive in the locker room at halftime. We were just trying to keep everybody involved in the game and trying to tell everybody about defense and getting stops.”
Instead, Siva scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half as the Cardinals capitalized on transition and took over the lead less than five minutes into the second half as Chase Behanan’s layup put the Cardinals up 47-46. Michigan tied the game seconds later on Burke’s free throw, but it was the last chance the Wolverines had to get within reach.
“They were just aggressive,” Michigan guard Nik Stauskas said. “I think Siva got to the basket really well in the second half. I think we just had a tough time staying in front of them and keeping them off the glass.”
Then, with 3:27 left — a minute and a half after officials called a controversial foul on Burke when he blocked a shot by Siva — Hancock’s 3-pointer widened Louisville’s lead to 76-66 and ultimately became the dagger, as Louisville led by no less than four in the final moments of the game.
“Nobody expected us to be here,” Robinson said. “I thought we did a great job of coming out every night and trying to prove that to people. We lost the championship game by a couple possessions. I don’t even think that sometimes we thought we could be here but we found a way to get better throughout the season and grind it out.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.