ATLANTA – Louisville had to hit the books. And fast.
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 tonight’s championship game against top-seeded Louisville.
The Wolverines’ victory gave the Cardinals 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.”
If has become when. And when is tonight.
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 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 7 minutes during a 30-13 run.
“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.”
In Michigan’s victory over Syracuse, AP Player of the Year Trey Burke had only seven 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.
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.”