Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Now it's their turn to shine

Final Two come out of shadows

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ATLANTA -- The hoops teams at Louisville and Michigan are used to being overlooked.

The Cardinals may be a national powerhouse, but they're still considered second fiddle in their own state. The Kentucky Wildcats are the bluebloods of the bluegrass, while Louisville settles for being viewed as more of a blue-collar school.

 

The Michigan basketball team knows what that's like. Football rules on the Wolverines' campus -- rightly so, said Tim Hardaway Jr., given that program's long, storied history.

"We still have a ways to go," said Hardaway, Michigan's junior guard. "Football has a lot more national championships than we do."

Well, it's kind of hard to overlook either team now. Louisville and Michigan will meet tonight in the NCAA championship game.

The Cardinals (34-5) have lived up to their billing as the tournament's top overall seed, blowing through their first four opponents before rallying from a dozen points down in the second half to beat surprising Wichita State 72-68 in the national semifinals.

It's been quite a run for the Louisville athletic program in general. The women's basketball team also reached the Final Four, and the football team won a Big East title and stunned Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

All the while, they're battling with Kentucky for the state's affections.

"We're not a who's who like Harvard and Yale in the alumni world," coach Rick Pitino said Sunday. "We're a blue-collar school that supports each other. One of the coolest places I've ever worked."

Pitino should know. He also worked at Kentucky, leading the Wildcats to a national title in 1996.

Now, he's got a chance to become the first coach to win championships at two schools.

"I haven't thought about it for one second," insisted Pitino, already the first coach to guide three schools to the Final Four. "We have built a brand on Louisville first. Everything we do is about the team, about the family. I'd be a total hypocrite if I said (winning another title is) really important. It really is not important. I want to win because I'm part of this team. That's it."

Football may come first at Michigan (31-7), but the Wolverines haven't exactly been pushovers on the hardwood.

They won a national title in 1989, beating Seton Hall in overtime, and they've lost three other times in the championship. The school is best known for the Fab Five, that group of five stellar recruits who led Michigan to back-to-back final appearances in 1992 and '93.

This team is cut from the same mould, with three freshmen starters and two other first-year players who made big contributions in a semifinal victory over Syracuse.

"The Fab Five was a great team -- I mean a really great team," said freshman guard Caris LeVert, who came off the bench to score eight points against the Orange. "They did some great things for our school."

But these guys can do something the Fab Five never did -- win it all.

"Just making it to the Final Four, we are going to hang up a banner in the Crisler Center," said another freshman, Glenn Robinson III. "But we aren't done. Having the chance to hang another one up for a national championship... is all kind of surreal to us."

Both teams got to this point with crucial assists from the backups.

LeVert and Spike Albrecht -- another freshman -- both hit a pair of three-pointers in Michigan's semifinal win, points that were desperately needed with player-of-the-year Trey Burke struggling through a brutal night. The sophomore guard made only one of eight shots and finished with seven points, just the second time this season he's been held in single digits.

Burke said he'll gladly hand off the scoring duties to someone else again today if the Cardinals take a similar approach to Syracuse.

Louisville, inspired by the gruesome injury to Kevin Ware but needing others to step up while he's down, got an even bigger contribution off the bench than Michigan. Luke Hancock scored 20 points. Walk-on Tim Henderson, moving up in the rotation because of Ware's broken leg, knocked down back-to-back three-pointers that turned the momentum when it looked like Wichita State might pull off another shocker. There's always a chance for the more obscure players to step up.

"Those guys, not that you don't pay attention to them, but your strategy is not toward them." Pitino said. "We're all trying to stop the great players defensively, choreograph our defensive plan to stop the great players."

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2013 C6

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