Louisville coach Rick Pitino, center, holds up the NCAA National Championship trophy following Monday’s 82-76 win against Michigan at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
ATLANTA — For one night anyway, four million Atlantans could take a backseat. Rick Pitino owned this town.
He capped a day that started with him being introduced as a member of the 2013 class of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame by etching out some history all his own.
In front of a record NCAA final crowd of 74,326 fans at the Georgia Dome, Pitino paced, barked and willed his Louisville team to an 82-76 win over Michigan to become the first coach in NCAA basketball history to win titles with teams from two different schools.
That both were from the state of Kentucky, including his 1996 title, with the University of Kentucky, speaks to Pitino’s nerve, savvy and adaptability. And to see him, at age 60, being lifted up off the floor in a bear hug by sophomore forward Chane Behanan, gave a pretty good indication of his ability to stay relevant.
“About 12 or 13 games ago, all of these guys said, ‘If you win the national championship, Coach, you’re getting a tattoo,’” Pitino said in his postgame TV interview, apparently not worried about adding a national audience to the list of 14 players already holding him accountable. “I said ‘Hell yeah, I’m getting a tattoo.’”
Louisville senior point guard Peyton Siva had a few ideas of what he should get.
“My name,” Siva offered in the postgame press conference. “I told a couple reporters he should get a lower back tattoo.”
The way Siva played Monday night, Pitino ought to let him pick the tattoo. The senior point guard scored 18 points on a night when Louisville’s leading scorer Russ Smith was off his game (3-for-16 shooting). He played a part in keeping Wooden award winner Trey Burke from taking over the game, despite his 24 points. And Siva got the ball to Luke Hancock, who had the hot hand again on 5-for-5 shooting from 3-point range.
Siva dictated play down the stretch, with 14 points in the second half, including a layup to convert an alley-oop pass from Hancock to give Louisville a 67-62 lead with 6:26 to play.
He did it all with Pitino pushing his buttons the entire way.
“The whole game, coach Pitino kept saying ‘You’re out of shape, son, you’re out of shape,’” Siva said. “’You need to dig in.’”
The Cardinals were already thin without injured Kevin Ware and playing a high-paced game against an efficient offensive team, but Siva played 36 minutes. He finished with six rebounds, five assists, four steals, only two turnovers and the respect of his coach, who was giving him some tough love out of necessity.
“I had to keep prodding him and prodding him because watching him, I was out of gas,” Pitino said.
The Cardinals came back from 12 points down for the second time in the Final Four and once again turned to sixth man Hancock to help them dig out. He finished with 22 points on Monday night after dropping in 20 points on Wichita State in the semifinals.
Hancock became the first bench player ever to win the most outstanding player award in the Final Four. So it was fitting that he was the one carrying the national championship trophy to postgame interviews.
“I just thought we needed something,” Hancock said of his contributions. “I tried to do whatever I could to help the team. I usually take a back seat to Russ and Peyton, which I’m fine with since they are such great players. I just hit a few shots.”
Michigan had claimed the first-half momentum behind 17 points from freshman backup point guard Spike Albrecht, 10 more than he’d ever scored in a game. Albrecht was 4-for-4 from 3-point range — including three in a three-minute span — and helped Michigan widen its lead to 33-21 with 3:54 left in the first half on a drive to the basket, with Burke on the bench with two fouls.
Hancock had an answer. He scored 14 points on five straight possessions in the final four minutes of the first half, including four consecutive 3-pointers.
Louisville turned to Hancock late as well, using his 3-pointer from the left wing with 3:25 left, his fifth of the game, and two free throws with 37.5 seconds left to seal it.
Michigan (31-8) had waited 20 years for a return to the NCAA championship game after back-to-back losses in 1992 and 1993. This team captured the imagination not only of the Wolverines fanbase but the original “Fab Five” who played in those games.
All of them came Monday night -- Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, and even Chris Webber, who has been officially disassociated with the school as part of NCAA sanctions. He watched the game from a suite.
“I hope when we get on that plane, there are some smiles on the faces,” Michigan coach John Beilein of his players. “The sun is going to come up tomorrow. If they’re not smiling, we’re going to make them smile.”
Beilein said ultimately Louisville’s quickness got the better of Michigan Monday night.
The Cardinals will likely leave as big a mark for their passion as they will their skill level, and how they overcame Ware’s gruesome leg fracture in the regional final against Duke.
Ware, the Rockdale County standout, had to watch the two Final Four games from courtside but he could take part in the net-cutting ceremony Monday night. Dome workers had to lower the goal so he wouldn’t have to climb the ladder, but Ware cut the last three strands of the net, while leaning on his crutches.
He left with the net hanging around his neck.
“It feels so good,” Ware said.