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NCAA championship: Beautiful, exhilarating, exhausting

If you glanced away for 20 seconds you missed something really good.

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

ATLANTA In a game that looked the way a national championship should always look, Louisville outlasted Michigan for the title Monday night, 82-76, before 74,326 fans in an electric Georgia Dome.

The first Final Four I ever covered was 25 years ago, in 1988. Kansas and Oklahoma were tied 50-50 at halftime in the championship. It was up-and-down basketball at its best. This Michigan-Louisville game felt a lot like that one - a breathtaking display of what basketball can be when constant whistles, missed shots and hand checking doesn't clog it all up.

It was beautiful, exhilarating and also a bit exhausting. If you glanced away for 20 seconds you missed something really good.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino said it well when he talked about national championship games afterward: "The games are not always great. Not always pretty. But this was a great college basketball game."

Eventually, Louisville proved slightly too much for Michigan as newly-minted hall of famer Pitino became the first coach to ever win national titles at two different schools. He also won one at Kentucky in 1996.

The final dripped with emotion both during and after the game. An exuberant Pitino revealed that he had promised his team he would get a tattoo if Louisville won the national championship. And Louisville player Kevin Ware, who had suffered a horrific leg injury only eight days before, had one of the nets lowered for him after the game so he could snip it off with scissors and hold it up triumphantly.

The winning scores in the last three NCAA men's finals prior to this one: 53, 61 and 67 points. Michigan clobbered all of those totals. But Louisville was better, even on an off night from leading scorer Russ Smith (3-for-16).

In the second half, Louisville point guard Peyton Siva (18 points) grabbed the game, driving with impunity to the basket. He scored once on the business end of an alley-oop play. Another time, he tried to dunk over Trey Burke, who met him in the air for a spectacular block but was also called for the foul.

Burke was awesome for Michigan, scoring 24 and putting on a dribbling exhibition that only Siva could hope to match - and did. But Burke didn't get quite enough help in the second half, as freshman big man Mitch McGary got in foul trouble and didn't have a good night.

Louisville - the overall No.1 seed entering the tournament - justified that seeding with style. Luke Hancock, who made all five of his three-point attempts for the Cardinals, was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

"It doesn't get better than this," Hancock said. "It's unbelievable."

The game had turned into Spike TV for large portions of the first half, when an unlikely star had pushed his way into the national consciousness. Spike Albrecht, a 5-11 freshman backup guard, was pressed into duty when national player of the year Burke got his second foul after only playing six minutes.

Then Albrecht - who got his nickname because he used to wear his baseball spikes so often as a kid -- had a first half that was straight out of a Disney movie.

Albrecht had never scored more than seven points in a game all year, but he had 17 points in the game's first 17 minutes. Albrecht drilled all four of his three-point attempts in the half and pushed Michigan to a lead that reached 33-21.

Albrecht, who resembles N.C. State's Tyler Lewis in his playing style but who wasn't nearly as highly recruited, received late recruiting interest from Michigan. Before then, he was likely headed to Appalachian State.

But Louisville then turned the tables with its own hot three-point shooter. Hancock made all four of his three-point attempts in the first half, bringing the Cardinals all the way back with 16 first-half points.

Louisville took a brief lead on a ridiculous alley-oop dunk slammed home by Tarboro's Montrezl Harrell before Michigan regained it, going into halftime with a 38-37 lead as everyone in the arena took a deep breath and hoped against hope that the second half would be as good.

It was, although it had a whole different set of characters. Louisville clamped down completely on Albrecht, who wouldn't score in the second half. Michigan mostly did the same on Hancock (who still ended up with 22).

Instead, it was Siva and Burke pinballing back and forth, lighting up a memorable Georgia night that finally turned a bright shade of Louisville red.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler.
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