ATLANTA — Behind the Louisville bench, the fans remained on their feet in the final minutes, unable to sit down, or feel comfortable, or breathe. Peyton Siva drove, Gorgui Dieng swatted and Luke Hancock launched 3-pointers. Here was Louisville, the top seed in this NCAA tournament, playing like it until the end.
As the national championship unspooled Monday night, Louisville and Michigan put on a show, a production worthy of a stage, with acrobatics and dramatic flair, with stars in their usual roles and understudies in starring ones, with bodies that thudded when they hit the floor after so many collisions at the Georgia Dome.
Louisville pulled from so many elements, from its press and its pressure, from its outside marksmanship and its balanced scoring. The Cardinals (35-5) roared back from a 12-point deficit and seized control as the second half wore on. They ultimately triumphed 82-76, as those fans danced and waved red towels and finally exhaled.
And with that, a college season as chaotic as any in recent memory ended, at once oddly and predictably, with the favorite the last team standing at the end.
“These are the 13 toughest guys I've ever coached,” Rick Pitino said before he revealed that he promised them he would get a tattoo if they triumphed Monday night.
“Hell, yes, I'm getting a tattoo,” said Pitino, who became the first men's college coach to win national titles at two Division I schools. He led Kentucky to the championship in 1996.
The players left the bench in the final seconds and stood on the elevated court. They hugged and pointed to the student section and pumped their fists.
At the end of the scrum stood Kevin Ware, their guard who broke his right leg in gruesome fashion in the Round of 8, propped up on crutches, as confetti rained down on the court.
“These are my brothers,” Ware said onstage. “They got the job done. I'm so proud of them.”
Hancock scored 22 points and won outstanding player honors while his father, who Yahoo Sports reported had a serious illness, watched from the stands.
Siva, who once talked his own father out of a suicide attempt, swayed back and forth and sang along to every song, karaoke but on a national stage.
The chosen few soon clustered on the court, as officials lowered the basket and the Cardinals snipped at one net with scissors. The basket was then lowered even farther, as the assembled whistled and clapped and shed more than a few tears. Ware took the scissors and cut himself some nylon and held the net high in his right hand.
There it was. Louisville's first title since 1986 and third overall.
The first half unfolded with a series of surprises, the pace frenetic, the play physical, each new twist as unlikely as the one that had preceded it. Trey Burke, the national player of the year in most quarters, scored Michigan's first seven points.
Then the game turned weird.
Then Michael Albrecht channeled Gerry McNamara and turned the first half, as McNamara did for Syracuse against Kansas in 2003, into a personal 3-point contest.
Known as Spike to those aware of his existence before Monday, Albrecht connected on six shots from long range in the first half. He drove inside for baskets, a gnat among the giants. He took only seven shots and accumulated 17 points. He spelled Burke, who missed much of the first half with two fouls. He trended on Twitter, where he drew comparisons to Michael J. Fox in the movie “Teen Wolf.”
Yet just when it seemed like Monday would constitute the most unlikely episode of Spike TV, Louisville's Hancock put on his best Albrecht impersonation late in the first half. He closed the gap with four-consecutive 3-pointers.
That was how the first half went: the Spike and Luke show. Only in the NCAA tournament.
Back and forth it went. Siva (18 points, five assists) staked the Cardinals to a lead. Burke drove and scored and trimmed it.
Louisville entered the game on a 15-game win streak, its last loss in mid-February, against Notre Dame, and in five overtimes. The Cardinals were playing for Ware. Last week, Ware said he saw a bone sticking 6 inches out of his leg.
This game featured the nation's most efficient offense in Michigan against the nation's most efficient defense in Louisville, strength against strength, two teams who stocked their respective rosters with athletes but deployed them in slightly different ways. The Wolverines would run. The Cardinals would press. That much both teams promised.
So it went. Both teams required one rousing comeback in order to arrive here. For Michigan, it came against Kansas, down 10 with less than three minutes left in the regional semifinals. For Louisville, it came in the national semifinals, against Wichita State on Saturday, victory in doubt until the end.
That marked the Cardinals' closest game this tournament, in which they won their first five contests by an average of 18.2 points.