The Louisville Cardinals defeated the Michigan Wolverines 82-76 in one of the most exciting NCAA Championship games in recent memory. For the second game in a row, the Cardinals needed to overcome a slow start to claw their way back into the game and eventually pulled it out in the end thanks to their superior defense and ability to create turnovers.
The first half of the national championship game was perhaps the most exciting 20 minutes of basketball throughout the entire tournament. While many expected Russ Smith of Louisville and Trey Burke of Michigan to steal the show, it was Luke Hancock and Spike Albrecht who lit up the scoreboard. Albrecht got the ball rolling by hitting four three pointers en route to 17 first half points while Hancock answered with four straight three pointers to help Louisville erase a double digit Michigan lead right before the first half.
National Player of the Year, Trey Burke, had a quick start to the game, scoring Michigan’s first seven points, before being whistled for two fouls in the first half. When Burke received his second foul of the game, he was forced to sit on the bench for the remainder of the first half. This opened the door for Spike Albrecht to pick up where he left off on Saturday night, which was knocking down outside shots. Albrecht quickly hit a long three pointer right when he entered the game before scoring 14 more first half points.
However, not to be outdone by the freshman backup point guard, bench player, Luke Hancock of Louisville showed that he could hit three point jumpers as well. Trailing 33-21 with just over four minutes remaining in the first half, Hancock helped lead the Cardinals on a 16-3 run by knocking down four three pointers in a row. Michigan hit two free throws right before halftime to take a 38-37 lead into the locker room.
Once the teams emerged for the second half, the Louisville Cardinals picked up their defensive effort and made a few adjustments while on offense. The biggest adjustment the Cardinals made was to isolate guard Peyton Siva in the pick and roll game. Siva did an excellent job running the offense and either creating a wide open look in the lane for himself or finding an open teammate for an easy dunk. Chane Behanan was the biggest recipient of Siva’s improved play in the second half as he finished with a double-double for the game, scoring 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. It was Behanan’s seven points in just under six minutes in the early stages of the second half that gave Louisville the momentum it needed out of the break.
After the Cardinals found their way on offense, they were able to clamp down defensively as well. Outside of Trey Burke, the Michigan Wolverines had a tough time scoring in the second half. Mitch McGary was a virtual non factor because of foul trouble while Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas also struggled to find any room on the offensive end.
While Spike Albrecht was able to provide a huge spark for the Wolverines in the first half, he was unable to provide much of anything in the second half as he seemingly wore down from the extended playing time he received during the first 20 minutes.
Even though the Michigan Wolverines were struggling on both sides of the ball, they never really fell out of the game. Whenever the Louisville Cardinals would make a small run, the Wolverines seemingly had an answer and kept the game close. This created an exciting finish that saw the Louisville Cardinals knock down several key free throws to secure the victory.
At the end of the day, the Louisville Cardinals were the better team and it showed in their execution down the stretch. The Cardinals knew exactly what they wanted to do on both offense and defense and were able to force a couple of key turnovers late. Once Louisville received the ball after those turnovers, they had several options on offense that were not there in the first half. When Hancock hit a corner three with 3:20 to go, the Cardinals saw their lead balloon to 10 points, and it seemed to be too much for the Wolverines to overcome.
For those college basketball fans hoping for an exciting championship game, they certainly got everything they had hoped for and more. Monday’s game featured several scoring runs and all of the momentum swings that make college basketball so great. If next year’s NCAA title game is as entertaining as this one was between Louisville and Michigan, then college basketball fans will be in for another treat.