This year’s NCAA tournament was one full of surprises, as it is almost every year (with the exception being 2008, in which all the #1 seeds made the Final Four, which no one predicted anyway because it never happens).
In a fitting end to an exciting season, this year’s championship game between Louisville and Michigan did not disappoint. For the first time in a long time, I was not cheering against a team that I hate, which was a wonderful relief. Yes, I’m looking at you, Kentucky.
I wanted to touch on a few of the elements that contributed to the overall story of this year’s championship game. While any of these individuals merit their own column, I will merely make you aware of their excellence to encourage further investigation.
I’ll start with the team that was not the victor, Michigan. Sadly, this was not the year that the Big Ten would win its first championship since the Michigan State Spartans won it all back in 2000. However, there were still some positive aspects to relish in their loss.
First and foremost, Spike Albrecht. Incredible name, and incredible first half for this freshman. He seemingly came out of nowhere to score 17 points in the first 20 minutes and help catapult Michigan to their early lead in this game after coming off the bench. Unfortunately, he went cold in the second half, but he was a definite spark in the early goings for the Wolverines.
Despite seeing his team squander a 12-point lead to only a one-point advantage heading into halftime, Michigan’s head coach, John Beilein delivered a wonderful and motivating halftime speech to his players. There was no yelling, there was no blaming, there were no chairs thrown. He was encouraging and proud, like a head coach should be of a team in the national championship game. After the game, he continued to praise his players while graciously crediting Louisville’s performance, demonstrating great class.
On the other side — the winning side — is Louisville. The Cardinals were lead by their lone senior player, Peyton Siva. His story is absolutely incredible. Growing up in a troubled neighborhood in Seattle, Siva found an escape through sports from the drug and gang activity surrounding him both at home and at school. Even more impressive, though, is that as he found his outlet in sports throughout high school, he allowed other friends and teammates to stay at his house on weekends to serve as a safehouse to help others avoid drugs and gang activity.
He turned out an incredible championship game, which was topped off by a backdoor dunk with 6:25 remaining to seemingly put the game away. As Stacey King would say, “Big time players make big time plays.”
Luke Hancock, the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, comes off of Louisville’s bench. That’s right. He’s not even a starter. He completely took over the game at a point when Michigan held a 12- point lead with three minutes remaining in the first half after draining a three point field goal. He went on to score 14 straight points to finish out the first half and give Louisville the energy they needed to start the second half. He played 30 minutes in the game and scored 22 points.
Finally, on the Louisville side, I’d like to mention Kevin Ware. He snapped his tibia in the regional championship game against Duke in what was undoubtedly one of the most gruesome sports injuries I have ever seen. Thanks to the horrors of the Internet, people have been able to slow down the replay enough to capture a shot of his leg bent at a 90 degree angle just before snapping. The most gross.
I understand that this is not an unheard of occurrence, but unlike football, where pads help to hide some of the more traumatic injuries, Ware’s leg seemingly broke in half. Players started crying, passing out and throwing up. That’s not a normal event.
So, the fact that Ware was able to attend Monday night’s game after a successful surgery to motivate his team was an uplifting story. Despite his crutches, the net was lowered so that Ware could make the final cut to bring down the championship net. A true storybook ending to the game.
Overall, this was an incredibly fascinating game to watch. From the individual storylines to the momentum shifts in the game itself, it was ideal. It was a perfect championship game, in my opinion (minus the refs, but that is to be expected).
Finally, one last element of perfection to this championship game, and it’s almost too perfect to even share: the winning entry on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge — which had 8.15 million entries this year — was composed by a gentleman named Craig Gilmore. The name of his bracket? Lennay Kekua’s Entry. Per my column earlier this semester, “Notre Shame,” you should know that this is the name of the fictitious girlfriend of Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o.
Mr. Gilmore, you have done a wonderful thing. As D.J. Gallo of ESPN said, “I feel like I’ve now been alive to witness a human achievement as triumphant as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. Thank you, Mr. Gilmore. And thank you, too, Ms. Kekua; your fiction made this reality possible.”
All around, this NCAA tournament was truly one for the ages.