Heading into the tournament, Louisville was the prohibitive favorite. They were the hottest team. They were the most consistent team. And if you studied the numbers, there was but one potential fatal flaw with this team. If Russ Smith struggled, Louisville could be beat. And make no mistake, Smith struggled in Monday’s championship. He started 1-10 from the field and ended up 3 of 16. He had a terrible turnover with 90 seconds left in the game. He had 4 fouls and 0 steals.
And yet, with the season on the line, Louisville refused to let its biggest weakness be the team’s undoing. With Russ Smith having one of his worst games of the season, his teammates stepped up and carried him. Wayne Blackshear had averaged fewer than 4 points per game over the last 4 games, but there he was going toe-to-toe with Trey Burke to open the game. Chane Behanan battled for offensive rebounds like his life depended on it. (At one point he grabbed an offensive rebound while surrounded by four Michigan jerseys.) Gorgui Dieng had a couple of beautiful offensive plays that sort of signified how far his offensive game has come. (He hit a jumper from the free throw line and had a gorgeous power move for a lay-up on the right post.) Meanwhile Peyton Siva had a second half he will never forget. Sure the alley-oop wheel play will probably be his highlight. But Siva’s overall assertiveness in dishing the rock led to incredible second half shooting for Louisville. Michigan stayed close by making some tough shots, but down the stretch Peyton Siva made sure Louisville was getting the better shots. And of course Luke Hancock hit the four huge threes to lead the first half comeback.
Pregame Rick Pitino was asked whether Trey Burke or Mitch McGary scared him more. He said in a game like this, you have to fear that any player could be the hero. For much of the game it seemed like he was oddly prophetic about Michigan’s Spike Albrecht. But maybe he was just prophetic about his own team. In this season, in this tournament, in this Final Four, it seemed that everyone on Louisville embraced the moment.
But for me two players will always stand out, not so much for the plays or the moments, but for the memories. Peyton Siva’s childhood was brutally rough. His family had problems with drugs and crime, and at one point he had to talk his dad out of committing suicide. Attending college away from his family, his Dad rarely could attend games. But I will never forget the first time I saw Peyton Siva’s dad in the Louisville stands cheering on his son. Whatever mistakes his dad had made in his life, you could tell that Peyton Siva’s dad took great pride in his son’s performance. And to see him again on the sideline in the championship game with his hand-drawn Kevin Ware t-shirt, was truly a joyous moment.
And maybe that’s why another connection to this team also hit me. Sadly I also live 500 miles away from my parents. I don’t get to see my dad as often as I would like. But in 2010, my Dad and I drove to the Charleston Classic and saw George Mason play three times. I remember seeing Luke Hancock for the first time in that tournament. And I remember raving about how, even if he wasn’t the most athletic player on the floor, he seemed to play his best in the biggest moments of the game. The memory of spending that time with my father will always be special.
And really, for many of us, these college basketball games aren't about the stats or the coaching decisions. They aren't about the referees.
-Whether you walked over to Midnight Madness on the quad on a cold October night and saw Louisville’s tip-off scrimmage
-Whether you went to a bunch of games with your girlfriend and couldn’t believe how much she cared about basketball
-Whether you went to a bunch of games with your Dad so you could get free dinner afterward
-Whether you drove back to the Louisville campus to see your team play twice this winter, and raved to your wife about the new stadium
-Whether you bought your five year old daughter a Louisville jersey and made her wear it on game-day
-Whether you were crazy enough to make the trip to the Bahamas and were disappointed to see Gorgui Dieng get injured
-Whether you tuned in for the first time when you clicked the Yahoo link and saw your alma matter was in the tournament and some poor kid broke his leg
In the end, this season is full of memories that Louisville fans and alumni will never forget.