ATLANTA (AP) — Some might say Luke Hancock won the national title game for the Louisville Cardinals. Others might say he simply saved it for them.
With the game in danger of getting out of reach Monday night, Hancock went on a shooting spree for the ages, scoring 14 straight points for the Cardinals late in the first half as part of a run that turned a 12-point deficit into a one-point lead.
Louisville went on to defeat Michigan 82-76 for the national title. Hancock went 5 for 5 from 3-point range and finished with 22 points to add to his 20 from the national semifinal. He was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, the first reserve to take that award, according to the NCAA.
"We needed a rally and we've been doing it for a couple of games straight, being down," Hancock said. "We just had to wait and make our run."
No small feat to come off the bench and win that type of award for the Cardinals. This is a team led by the scoring of Russ Smith, the patient tenacity of Peyton Siva and the shot-blocking and rebounding of Gorgui Dieng. The presence of Rick Pitino to say nothing of the story of Kevin Ware and his broken leg made Hancock, a junior transfer from George Mason, something of an afterthought.
Hard to imagine that's the case anymore.
"I just thought we needed something," said Hancock, whose 100-percent mark from 3 is, of course, a title-game record. "I tried to do whatever I could to help the team. I usually take a back seat to Russ and Peyton, which I'm fine with since they are such great players. I just hit a few shots."
Trailing 33-21 with just under 4 minutes left in the first half, Hancock started his scoring streak with two free throws. That was the easy part. Then, he spotted up four straight times from beyond the 3-point arc. They all went in. He accounted for 14 straight Louisville points as part of a 16-3 run that turned the 12-point deficit into a one-point lead, and turned a potential runaway into a game again.
This marked the seventh time Louisville has come back from double digits to win this season — and the second time the Cards (35-5) have turned a 12-point deficit into a victory in Atlanta. Hancock was also key in the comeback against Wichita State on Saturday — a game where Louisville also got a boost from walk-on Tim Henderson in the form of two 3-pointers during a game-saving comeback.
"There are so many plots," Pitino said. "We don't get to the final game if a walk-on doesn't step up and hit two gigantic 3s, and as soon as we started to play Luke Hancock more, our halfcourt offense evolved into something that was very special."
Indeed, it was quite a performance from the player Pitino has been afraid to start because he wanted to keep him out of foul trouble.
And quite a treat for Hancock's father, Bill, who is gravely ill with a sickness the family does not want to disclose, but made the trip down from Roanoke, Va., nonetheless to see his son become the star of the Final Four.
Bill Hancock's illness may have been the most poignant, untold story of this, a championship run dominated by news of Ware's snapped tibia, a gruesome injury suffered in the regional final that gave all the Cardinals a rallying point.
"There's no way to describe how it feels that my dad was here," Hancock said.
Hancock was Plan B for Pitino, whose best scorer, Smith, went 3 for 16 in the final and 9 for 33 for the Final Four. Hancock's stats: 5 of 6 in the final and 11 of 15 for the tournament. Since Feb. 23, Hancock is 28 for 49 from 3-point range. Talk about making the most of your touches.
After Hancock shot the Cardinals back within contact in the first half, Smith, Siva and Chane Behanan started scoring, slowly building a Louisville lead. Then it was Hancock with what was essentially the knockout blow — a 3-pointer with 3:27 left that put Louisville up by double digits for the first time all night.
He became the first non-starter in a championship game to score 20-plus points since Ron Mercer in 1996, playing for Pitino at Kentucky.
"Coach Pitino made this feel like a home," Hancock said. "I'm so excited for our team to be in this situation and finally be here."