We started with 68 teams, cut it down to 2, and in a little over 24 hours, we'll know the one. On Monday night in Atlanta, No. 1 Louisville takes on No. 4 Michigan with a national title hanging in the balance, and needless to say, both teams earned the right to be playing on college basketball's biggest stage.
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The Cardinals made it to the Final Four after knocking off Duke in the Elite Eight, in a game that saw Louisville lose one of their guards to a horrific leg injury. The Cardinals pushed ahead through the tears and devastation after losing Kevin Ware for the foreseeable future to face No. 9 Wichita State, an underdog looking to prove the world wrong. The Shockers had made it to the Elite Eight after beating No. 1 Gonzaga, and followed that up with a victory over La Salle to advance to the Final Four. Underdog or not, momentum certainly seemed to be in their favor heading into Saturday's showdown.
The game started close, as the lead bounced back and forth between the two teams. At the end of the first half, Wichita State led by the slimmest of margins, 26-25. However, the Shockers erupted out of the locker room to start the second half, and with 13 minutes remaining, pushed their lead to 12. Louisville struggled to regained their composure, but once they did, they began chipping away at the difference. The Cardinals forced Wichita State into 7 turnovers over the final 7 minutes of the game, which was a huge factor in Rick Pitino's squad getting back in the contest.
With the clock ticking down, one team's dream was about to come to an end.
Louisville's Chane Behanan made a clutch layup with 3 minutes remaining to give the Cardinals the lead, but the Shockers weren't going down without a fight. With less than 10 seconds to go and still down two, Wichita State had no choice but to foul. Luke Hancock made one free throw, cushioning the lead, but not totally securing it. The Shockers had one last chance to send the game into overtime, but with 6 seconds remaining, a questionable jump ball call was made, and the possession arrow gave the ball back to Louisville. Once again, the Shockers had to foul, and they watched helplessly as Russ Smith put the final nail in their coffin.
The clock had finally struck midnight on Wichita State's Cinderella run, with the Cardinals hanging on for a 72-68 victory to advance to their first championship game since the 1985-86 season. Louisville certainly has motivation to win, especially since the loss of Ware. They even changed their tourney shirts to read "Ri5e to the Occasion," a tribute to Ware's jersey number.
The second semifinal game pitted two No. 4 seeds against one another in Michigan and Syracuse. Both teams faced tough opponents leading up to the Final Four. In the Sweet 16, the Wolverines beat No. 1 Kansas in OT and the Orange throttled No. 1 Indiana by double-digits. In the Elite Eight, Michigan blew out Florida by 20 and Syracuse held Marquette to 39 points en route to a 16-point victory.
The Orange jumped out to a quick lead, but the Wolverines answered back swiftly. Mitch McGary and Trey Burke made shot after shot to put Michigan up 36-25 at the half. It was all downhill from there for Syracuse. At times, they would close the gap, only to watch the Wolverines move back ahead comfortably.
Syracuse simply could not get over the hump.
Jon Horford sank a late free throw to give Michigan a three point advantage. The Orange had one last chance to tie the game, but Trevor Cooney's pull-up jumper clanged off the rim. The Wolverines capped off the victory with a dunk, winning by a final score of 61-56. A huge part of Michigan's success can be attributed to the bench. Their subs outscored Syracuse's 21-11. This type of contribution will be key Monday night if the Wolverines are to cut down the nets in the Georgia Dome.
In the end, 67 teams will have fallen, and one will have etched their name in the history books. The Louisville Cardinals and Michigan Wolverines are now the center of the college basketball universe. May the best team win.