ATLANTA — The last of the Louisville players to get the scissors, Kevin Ware stood in front of the basket as it was lowered to him. Grinning from ear to ear, he cut what remained of the net.
“It's not about me, I've never been that type of guy,” Ware said. “These are my brothers. They got the job done.”
They always do.
A team that found inspiration in Ware's horrible broken leg wasn't about to let a little thing like an off night by its biggest star, Russ Smith, keep it from cutting down the nets. Luke Hancock made four straight 3-pointers in the first half, and Peyton Siva and Chane Behanan had monster second halves to lead the top-seeded Cardinals to their third national title and first since 1986 on Monday night with an 82-76 victory over Michigan.
“I'm so happy for our team,” said Hancock, named the tournament's most outstanding player. “I'm so happy that multiple guys got to contribute on this great run.”
And every one of them was in on the celebration.
Siva leaped off the floor to hug his family when the final buzzer sounded. Behanan picked up two cheerleaders and, with one in each arm, carried them to the mosh pit that quickly formed at center court.
In the most touching moment of all, Ware hobbled onto the court for the final seconds of the game. He had urged his teammates to “just go win” after his tibia snapped during the Midwest Regional final, and he made good on his promise to join them when they cut down the nets.
“Kevin Ware would do anything to be out there. We were just all locked in for him, and also for ourselves and our coaching staff,” said Behanan, Ware's best friend on the team. “Kevin was a big part of this team, and to see him go down was devastating. It was a big motivator for us.”
Hancock finished with 22 points, including a perfect 5 for 5 from 3-point range. Siva had 14 of his 18 points in the second half, and Behanan had 11 of his 12 rebounds in the second half. Behanan also chipped in 15 points for Louisville (35-5), which finished the season on a 16-game winning streak.
“We beat a great basketball team probably because I have the 13 toughest guys I have ever coached,” said Rick Pitino, who became the first coach to win titles with two schools hours after he was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Pitino, who sets the fashion trend among college coaches with his designer suits, now has to get a tattoo after promising his team early in the year he'd get inked if they won the title.
“I think that was our biggest motivating, getting Coach P a tattoo,” Siva said.
Louisville wasn't exactly deep before Ware snapped his tibia in the Midwest Regional final, and Pitino candidly said his absence was going to cause “problems” for the Cardinals. Having Smith revert to his wild and “Russdiculous” ways after being so brilliant in the first five games of the tournament didn't help matters.
Smith began the night 1 of 10, and finished with nine points on 3-of-16 shooting. It was his worst performance since the Big East title game, and well below the 25 points he'd averaged in the first five games of the tournament.
“Russ was taking the same shots he normally takes, they just weren't falling,” Siva said. “Tonight just wasn't his night.”
But adversity means nothing to the Cardinals.
Ware's horrific injury — his bone protruded through the skin — would have left most teams reeling. But he became their inspiration instead, urging his teammates to “just go win the game” to get to the Final Four, then accompanying his teammates to his hometown of Atlanta just three days later.
And while his absence left Louisville short-handed, don't underestimate the emotional lift he provided. The Cardinals even tweaked their warm-up T-shirts to read “Ri5e to the Occasion,” with Ware's No. 5 on the back.
“I've never seen such affection, such spontaneous emotion,” Pitino said. “I look back on it and say, 'Man, that was really, really special.'”
This was the seventh time this year the Cardinals have come back from nine points or more to win, with three of those coming in the last seven games. Someone always steps up, and it wasn't going to be any different when the stakes were at their highest.
“We needed a rally and we've been doing it for a couple of games straight, being down,” Hancock said. “We just had to wait and make our run.”
With the Cardinals trailing by 12 — the same deficit they faced against Wichita State on Saturday night — late in the first half, Hancock made one, two, three and then a fourth 3-pointer. As his hand hung in the air after the last one, the Georgia Dome shook with cheers of “LUUUUUUKE!” for the guy who is so respected by his teammates he was made a team captain before he was eligible to play his first game for Louisville.
Siva fed Montrezl Harrell for a monster dunk and, just like that, Louisville had a 37-36 lead just before the half.
Michigan pulled within 54-52 with 12:07 to play on a deep, deep 3 by AP Player of the Year Trey Burke, who sat most of the first half after picking up two quick fouls. But then, Siva and Behanan simply took over.
The Cardinals had three players with three fouls — Hancock and Siva, included — and fears about their shortened rotation had made them cautious in Saturday night's national semifinal. This time, however, it seemed to fire them up.
The 6-foot Siva looked about 6 inches taller as he scooped up a rebound took it all the way in for a layup, the first of three straight baskets. Behanan seemed to be everywhere under the basket, grabbing one rebound after another. Louisville outrebounded 32-27, including 20-10 in the second half.
Gorgui Dieng may have had a quiet night offensively — he had eight points — but he knocked down a short jumper to extend the lead to 65-61. Siva then scored on a backdoor dunk to make it 67-62 with 6:25 left, and the game was all but over.
“It's a one-time thing in life,” Behanan said. “You never know if you'll get this opportunity again, so we just left everything on the court.”