ATLANTA >> Start studying, Louisville.
Michigan spoiled what would have been one heck of a going-away party for the Big East on Saturday night, beating Syracuse 61-56 to earn a spot in Monday night’s championship game against top-seeded Louisville. Now the Cardinals have less than 48 hours to get ready for a team they haven’t played since 1978.
“We don’t have to prepare too much if we play Syracuse,” Pitino, trying to become the first coach to win national titles at two different schools, said after Louisville rallied for a 72-68 victory over ninth-seeded Wichita State. “We’ve got a lot of preparation if we play Michigan.”
Louisville (34-5), which has won 15 straight, is an early 4½-point favorite over Michigan (31-7).
This is Louisville’s first appearance in the championship game since 1986, when it won its second title. The Wolverines are back in the title game for the first time since 1993, when Chris Webber and Co. lost to North Carolina. Who did Michigan beat to reach that title game? None other than Kentucky, coached by Pitino at the time.
“It’s going to be a great matchup,” said Mitch McGary, who had 10 points and 12 rebounds for Michigan.
Louisville got its first real scare of the tournament from ninth-seeded Wichita State, falling behind by 12 in the second half. Nothing was clicking for the Cardinals on offense, they were getting in foul trouble and Kevin Ware, who can normally be counted on to give Louisville a lift off the bench, had been reduced to spectator, his broken right leg sustained in last week’s win over Duke propped up on the seat next to him.
But the Cardinals can grind it out, too, a fact that was all but forgotten as they steamrolled through their first four games of the NCAA tournament. Louisville had come back to win five games already this year after trailing by nine points or more, including the title game at the Big East tournament, and the Cardinals knew they had another run in them. Sure enough, Luke Hancock knocked down one shot after another, walk-on Tim Henderson made back-to-back 3s and the Cardinals forced seven turnovers in the final seven minutes during a 30-13 run.
Wichita State would give Louisville one last scare, pulling within 68-66 on Cleanthony Early’s tip in with 22 seconds left. But the Shockers were forced to foul, and the Smith and Hancock made theirs to seal the game.
“I never think we’re going to lose,” Pitino said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to win. We have lost. But that’s the attitude: Pressing teams have to stay in there. We were fouling too much. Then we started making some steals, picking up the heat. Then, of course, the guys were brilliant.”
It didn’t hurt that Malcolm Armstead, who earned Most Outstanding Player honors in the West Regional after averaging 15.5 points in the first four games, was ice cold, finishing with 2 points on 1-of-10 shooting. The Cardinals won’t be able to count on that against Michigan.
Though AP Player of the Year Trey Burke had only 7 points on 1-of-8 shooting, Tim Hardaway Jr. led three Wolverines in double figures with 13 points.
“We know Trey is our leader,” Hardaway said. “He’s not going to have a game like he’s been (having) the whole season. That’s when our team steps up and just tries to pick him up.”
Much was made of Syracuse’s suffocating 2-3 zone, which had made more than one tournament team look inept. But the Wolverines rendered it ineffective early on by making shots from long range, including four 3s in the first half. They got sloppy down the stretch, allowing Syracuse to all but erase Michigan’s 8-point lead with 3:54 left.
Trailing 58-56, the Orange had a chance to force overtime. But Brandon Triche was called for a foul when Jordan Morgan stepped in to take the charge with 19.2 seconds left. After Jon Horford made only one of two free throws, Syracuse called timeout and set up a play. But instead of going for a 3-pointer, Trevor Cooney drove the lane.
The ball was swatted away, Michigan snatched up the rebound and Morgan scored on a thunderous dunk with just over a second remaining.
“It was a close game throughout the whole game,” Burke said. “I just kept telling the guys, coming out of halftime, ‘Syracuse is a really talented team, and they’re going to go on runs.’ This is a game of runs.
“A lot of people would crack under pressure when you’re in that type of situation.”
Now Michigan will face a different kind of pressure against Louisville — the Cardinals’ stingy press.
“Louisville is going to be a difficult game,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We’ve played against Rick’s teams and Kentucky one time, when I was at Canisius, and at West Virginia a few times. He’s a great coach with great schemes and it’s going to be very difficult.”