How Louisville Captured the Basketball World

The basketball-mad Louisville athletic department experienced its greatest two weeks in school history, courtesy of one classic squad and one magical Cinderella story. On Monday, April 8, the top-ranked Louisville Cardinals men’s team defeated Michigan for the NCAA title. While the accomplishment is nothing to scoff at, many Americans expected the Cardinals to battle for the title. The following day, the fifth-seeded Cardinals’ women’s team achieved a much less likely goal when they battled Connecticut for the title before falling short. To the delight of Louisville fans, both teams captured national attention for entirely different reasons.

The men’s team entered the Elite Eight with a squad that had not yet been tested in March. That changed quickly, however, when guard Kevin Ware suffered a nasty broken leg against second-seeded Duke. Some teams would have wilted under the pressure, but the Cardinals electrified the crowd with a 20-2 second half run to bust the game open. During the week, media outlets jumped on the Kevin Ware story, and the team dedicated its Final Four games to the injured starting guard. It remained to be seen whether this injury would hinder Louisville’s title dreams.

Louisville ran into a difficult Wichita State squad that looked to continue its shocking tournament run with a Final Four victory. The Shockers led by 12 points in the second half, but Louisville received an unexpected boost from transfer Luke Hancock to fight back. The Cardinals hit some crucial three pointers to take a slim lead into the final three minutes, and buckled down on defense. The Shockers never backed down, but Louisville made enough free throws to stay ahead. When Luke Hancock grabbed a controversial offensive rebound with seven seconds left, the Cardinals finally clinched a spot in the finals with their 72-68 win.

The Cardinals then squared off against a hot Michigan Wolverine squad for NCAA supremacy, and the contest exceeded all expectations. Michigan walk-on Spike Albrect exploded for 17 first half points and gave Michigan a 35-23 lead. However, the Cardinals stormed back with a 14-1 run capped by a jaw-dropping Montrezl Harrel alley-oop. At the start of the second half, Louisville trailed by one, and had everything to play for.

The teams continued to battle, but Louisville took a slim lead when Russ Smith drained a corner three. When Tim Hardaway Jr.’s dunk pulled the Wolverines within 60-58, the Cardinals again could have quit. Instead, Luke Hancock and Peyton Siva willed the team to victory and gave coach Pitino his first title with Louisville. Kevin Ware’s injury inspired his teammates, so that the best team in America won a thoroughly deserved title over Michigan, just as I predicted in my previous article!

By contrast, the Louisville women’s team entered the Madness as a five seed, with some predicting a second round exit against Purdue. The Cardinals won this clash, but then headed to Oklahoma City for a David v. Goliath matchup against top-ranked Baylor. With 6’8” Britney Griner leading a powerful 34-1 Bears squad, nobody gave Louisville any chance. The Bears were 24 point favorites in Vegas, and had lost just once in 75 previous games.

The Cardinals responded by double-teaming Griner at all times, so she only touched the ball on 22 percent of possessions. When the other Baylor players could not hit open shots, Louisville pushed the tempo to gain a 39-29 halftime edge. The Cardinals continued their remarkable push by hitting 16 of 25 three point attempts for the game, and set an NCAA Tournament record for makes in a game. Despite this marksmanship, the Bears charged back and gained an 81-80 lead with nine seconds left. Louisville’s Monique Reid responded by earning two free throws with two seconds left, and she made both for the program’s biggest win ever. Because women’s basketball has so much less parity than men’s hoops, some analysts dubbed it the greatest upset in Women’s NCAA tournament history.

Despite the massive win, the Cardinals still needed two additional upset wins to reach the title game. The first came against Tennessee, the second seed in the Midwest Regional. Louisville again raced out to a blistering start, using three pointers and a quick tempo to move ahead 49-29 early in the second half. But Tennessee rallied to within 68-65 with 4:30 remaining, and had a chance to tie the game. But Louisville clamped down defensively and made free throws to seal the deal 86-78.

The Cardinals entered the Final Four for just the second time in school history, and looked to continue their success against second-seeded Cal. However, the script was flipped when the Golden Bears led by ten at halftime and thrived on the fast paced action. Lousiville answered by slowing the pace down. Despite being outrebounded, the Cardinals made 13 more free throws than Cal, and hit several big shots in the clutch to pull ahead. Sarah Hammond made the biggest play with a tie breaking “And-1” layup. The Golden Bears did not score in the final 1:50, and Louisville’s ladies mirrored the men’s team with another inspiring comeback.

The title game did not go too smoothly for Louisville, as the UConn Huskies romped to a 93-60 title win. The Cardinals watched their opponent drill threes and push the tempo, and UConn erased Louisville’s early 14-10 edge with a 19-0 run that put the game to bed. Despite this loss, the Lousiville women became the highest seeded team to win a NCAA Women’s Final Four game, and stunned the sports world with their 82-81 victory over Baylor.

The dual success stories captivated the basketball world, and provided sweet revenge for Louisville fans after their bitter rival Kentucky defeated the Cardinals in the Final Four a season ago. The women’s success of Louisville added another dimension to the March narrative, because Cardinal fans were able to rally behind their scrappy underdogs when the men’s team was not playing. While this excellent college hoops season has sadly ended, the future remains bright for each Louisville basketball team.