By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 8, 2013
ATLANTA — For the third time in their lives, the members of the Fab Five had to look on in despair as another team sealed a National Championship from the free-throw line.
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After the Michigan men’s basketball team dominated most of the first half, Louisville stormed back in the final minutes of the opening stanza to capture the game’s momentum.
The Cardinals never relinquished it, winning the 2012-13 National Championship, 82-76.
“Sometimes you’d rather lose by 10 or 15 than four or five because you’re so close,” said junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “This is definitely the best game that I played in. You’re in the National Championship and you can’t really beat it. I’d trade every game before this just to get this game back.
“It hurts, it really hurts.”
Louisville (14-4 Big East, 35-5 overall) spent much of the second half attempting to pull away, only for Michigan to continually fight back. But the Wolverines could never quite get over the hump after leading for more than 19 of the game’s opening 20 minutes.
While Michigan’s youth didn’t show in the first half — freshman point guard Spike Albrecht carried the Wolverines with 17 first-half points — it was the Cardinals’ experience that bested a tired-looking Michigan squad in the second half.
But in a game marred by errant officiating, one incorrect foul call might have ultimately sealed the game. After completing a monstrous alley-oop to freshman forward Glenn Robinson III to cut the deficit to three — sending Michigan fans into a frenzy — sophomore point guard Trey Burke appeared to cleanly block a Peyton Siva lay-up attempt. Burke was whistled for a foul, changing the tide of the game, as Siva hit two ensuing free throws.
“I guess the ref thought it was a foul,” Burke said. “I thought I had all ball and timed it up pretty good. Unfortunately, you know, it didn’t go that way.
“I think that was a turning point. … It could have been momentum. If it was a no-call, we could’ve gotten possession. We can’t go back on that now. It was a foul.”
The Wolverines (12-6 Big Ten, 31-7 overall) later cut their deficit to four via the charity stripe — they entered the bonus with 11 minutes to play — but the Cardinals never let it get any closer. With under a minute left, Michigan forced a miss but after corralling the rebound, freshman guard Caris LeVert stepped out of bounds with 52 seconds remaining. Louisville was eventually sent to the free-throw line, where it iced the game.
Michigan has been on both sides of stunning comebacks, both in regular-season losses to Wisconsin and Penn State, and most recently, a double-digit comeback win over Kansas last weekend. It was those games that left the Wolverines believing until the clock finally expired.
“We fought for 40 minutes,” Burke said. “There was never a point in time that we gave up. … They were the better team today.”
While LeVert’s miscue was certainly a crushing blow, Michigan coach John Beilein admitted he mishandled the ensuing possession. Beilein, coaching in his first Final Four, mistakenly thought the Cardinals were already in the bonus and instructed his players not to foul. That blunder, along his decision to leave both Burke and freshman forward Mitch McGary in the game when each had four fouls allowed precious seconds to tick off the clock, thwarting any chance of what could’ve amounted to a miraculous comeback.
“It was a coaching error,” Beilein said. “That falls on me as a coach.”
Burke sat for much of the first half and finished the game with 24 points, but no other Michigan player — aside from Albrecht’s magnificent first half — could string together any offensive output.
Louisville’s stars, meanwhile, shined when it mattered most. Siva scored 18 points, and forward Gorgui Dieng registered eight points and eight boards, while neutralizing freshman forward Mitch McGary.
In one of the best first halves in the history of an NCAA Championship, a pair of unheralded, un-recruited reserves stole the nation’s brightest spotlight in the opening 20 minutes.
Burke got off to a hot start, scoring Michigan’s first seven points, to give the Wolverines a 7-3 lead, but two early fouls demoted him to the bench for the half’s final 15 minutes. With the Fab Five looking on from the stands, Beilein played all five of his freshmen on the court together for the first time since a Dec. 1 road game at Bradley.
Albrecht came through in the unlikeliest of ways, knocking down six of his seven field goals, including four 3-pointers, for a game-high 17 first-half points. An Albrecht layup at the 3:56 mark gave Michigan an 11-point lead — its largest of the half. Led by Albrecht, the freshmen scored 26 consecutive straight first-half points for the Wolverines.
“The whole world saw what Spike Albrecht is all about,” Hardaway said.
Albrecht said his hot shooting was reminiscent of his high-school days.
“When I go out there, I’m confident,” Albrecht said. “I wanted it so bad.”
Added Burke: “If there was a point guard I want coming off the bench, it’s Spike Albrecht. He’s going to make plays for you. He may not win the look test, but he’s going to make plays for this team. … I wasn’t surprised by his performance today.”
But a ferocious 14-1 Louisville run that included four consecutive 3-pointers from walk-on forward Luke Hancock gave the Cardinals their first lead, 36-35, with 22 seconds remaining. Two Michigan free throws sent the Wolverines into the locker room with a one-point lead.
Despite recapturing the lead, though, it was apparent Louisville had seized the game’s momentum. With 13:50 left, the Cardinals regained the lead and never looked back.
“They gained that momentum and I think that’s a bad idea when you’re playing against a team with that capability,” Hardaway said. “That’s what got them to win — that momentum going into that second half.”
Burke, expected to declare for NBA Draft in the near future said that while he expects some of his teammates to recover from this loss in the coming days, it’ll haunt him for a long time.
“It might take two or three weeks,” Burke said. “Sooner or later, I’ll have to get over it, mature from it and grow.”