It was the best game of the worst season.
That’s one of the ways we’ll remember the 2013 NCAA championship game. All year, we’d heard that college basketball was in crisis. “College basketball stinks,” wrote Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ESPN’s Jay Bilas told the Associated Press, “Our game is brutal to watch right now.” Scoring was down. The star power was gone. Coaching had become too conservative. The referees were letting the games get too physical.
Then, in the final game of the season, there at the Georgia Dome, we saw one of the finest title games in years. It was free-flowing and high-scoring, low on turnovers and rife with scoring runs. As much as anything else, it was a showcase for two bench players who became stars. The night belonged to Spike Albrecht, the tiny Michigan freshman, at least until it belonged to Luke Hancock, the sweet-shooting Louisville junior.
I traveled to Ann Arbor and Louisville to re-watch the game with its two standouts. Nearly a year after the wild first half that made them famous, both remember almost every last detail from that night. Both are entering this tournament with increased roles on altered teams that are once again peaking right on time for March Madness. Both could return to the Final Four this month. But both know that even if they lead their teams in scoring on the way to a national title, they will never experience another night quite like April 8, 2013.
ANN ARBOR, Michigan — February 19, 2014
17:20 — Michigan 7, Louisville 3
Less than two minutes before he would step onto the court and transform into a star, Albrecht leaned over on the Michigan bench and made a confession to senior reserve Matt Vogrich.
“I don’t think I’m going to play tonight,” he said. This wouldn’t have been a shock. Albrecht was an end-of-the-rotation player, and the final was a shorten-the-rotation game. A moment later, Albrecht went further: “There’s no way I’m playing tonight.” His rationale was simple. Right there in front of them and the 74,326 other people inside the Georgia Dome, Wolverines point guard Trey Burke was playing out of his damn mind. A floater off the glass and over Louisville center Gorgui Dieng, a 30-foot 3, a knifing drive finished with a double-clutching layup — these were all Burke, all in the first three minutes, accounting for Michigan’s first seven points.
“Trey was just nasty,” says Albrecht. He’s sitting in an administrative office on a snowy Wednesday morning in Ann Arbor. “Trey had that look in his eye,” he continues. “He looked like he was gonna drop 50. When he made that last ridiculous layup, I literally said out loud, ‘There is absolutely no way that we’re going to lose this game.’”
Albrecht was wrong. Not only about the game, but also about Burke. For the national player of the year, there would be no history-making 50-point performance. In the game’s opening moments, yes, Burke was dominant.1 But it took little time before he ended up on the bench.
The first foul seemed inconsequential. It came on a fast break. Louisville’s Peyton Siva slalomed down the court and barreled into Burke before the Michigan guard had a chance to set his feet. On the bench, Vogrich tapped Albrecht on the shoulder. “Be ready,” he said. Typically, Albrecht never entered the game until between 10 and 12 minutes were left in the first half. But after Burke’s first foul, Michigan coach John Beilein opted for caution. He motioned to Albrecht. The lottery pick came out; the seldom-used freshman went in. “I’m like a relief pitcher in baseball,” Albrecht says as he watches himself check into the game. “You never know what the hell’s going to happen. I don’t think people get how difficult that is. You could be sitting on the bench for 40 minutes, or you could be asked to play a really big role.”
Albrecht’s first thought that night: Survive the press. Louisville’s full-court defense was the most intimidating in the country — five players moving in near-perfect concert, beating their opponents to every point on the court, harassing ball handlers into dumb passes or dumber shots. “I was ready for it,” Albrecht says. “My whole life, as soon as I go into a game, teams start pressing,” he says. “They see me, and they’re like, ‘Hey, look at this kid. I’m gonna climb all over him.’ So I’ve had to learn how to deal with it.”2
He entered the game on a hot streak. In warm-ups his jumper had felt good. Hell, for weeks his jumper had felt good. He hadn’t missed a 3 all tournament.3 “I had an unbelievable groove going,” Albrecht says. “I don’t know what it was.” And on his first possession after entering the game, he catches Louisville’s Chane Behanan watching the ball. With Wolverines swingman Nik Stauskas holding the ball near the left elbow, Albrecht drifts to the corner. Stauskas hits him. Albrecht holds his follow-through as he watches the ball drop through the net.
Less than two minutes later, with Michigan up 14-11, Tim Hardaway Jr. grabs a long defensive rebound and pushes the ball upcourt with Albrecht flanking him to the right. When Hardaway hits the top of the key, four Louisville defenders collapse on him, leaving Albrecht alone in the right corner.
Another well-timed pass. Another open 3. Six points for Albrecht. Michigan led, 17-11. In the broadcast of the game, Albrecht is now becoming a nice story, a surprise contributor, destined at least for a footnote in the game’s eventual recap.
In his office chair, Albrecht smiles and nods. “Now I’m feeling really good,” he says. “Now I’m pretty sure my next shot is going in.”
12:04 — Michigan 17, Louisville 13
“Look at this,” Albrecht says. He sits up in his chair, leaning forward. “This is just stupid.”
He’s not wrong. On the screen, Albrecht is positioned at the right, elbow extended, footsteps in front of the hashmark. His arms are in the air. He is waving for the ball, desperate for another shot. As Burke dribbles on the left side, he watches Albrecht move toward him and lofts an overhead pass. Albrecht catches it near the top of the key. He is closer to the half-court decal than he is to the 3-point line. He launches the ball.
“This shot is terrible,” he says. “It’s early in the shot clock, we haven’t gotten into our offense. But I had to. My shot’s feeling so good right now. It’s literally like every single shot I take, I know it’s going in. But I know when I take it, if I miss, Coach [John] Beilein is going to kill me.”
He doesn’t miss. Michigan goes up 20-13. Albrecht has nine points in less than three minutes. It is, CBS will soon announce, the most he’s ever scored in a game.
On the way back down the court, the cameras catch Albrecht smacking hands with Jon Horford and Glenn Robinson III and yelling, in between, “Let’s fucking go.”
He laughs. “Yeah, I’m poppin’ off a little bit right here,” he says. “It’s funny. I’m always the calm dude. But there were a few times during the season when the cameras caught me talking a little shit. Beilein would sometimes pause the game film, like, ‘What in the world are you doing, Spike?’ Everybody would just be dying laughing. They loved it. Because if I was talking, then things must be going pretty good, so everybody would feed off it.”
11:14 — Michigan 20, Louisville 15
As Peyton Siva dribbles upcourt, Hancock flanks him to the left. On the ESPN international broadcast, Dick Vitale says, “Look for Hancock on the ball fake. One of the best ball fakes in basketball.” A second after Vitale finishes his sentence, Siva gets into the lane and draws Burke off of Hancock to help. He kicks to Hancock in the corner.
On cue, Hancock ball-fakes. Burke goes flying to challenge a shot that never comes. On his way past Hancock, Burke clips him on the shoulder as Hancock finally shoots. The whistle blows.4
“Terrible call,” says Albrecht.
Terrible or not, that’s two fouls on Burke. In these situations, Beilein is almost dogmatic. You get two fouls in the first half, you sit. For the rest of the half, the keys to the Michigan offense belong to Albrecht.5
“I remember telling myself right here: ‘All eyes are on me.’ If anything goes wrong, it’s going to be seen as my fault. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to be the reason people say we lost this game.’”
9:30 — Michigan 20, Louisville 17
With Burke on the bench, Albrecht has to be more than just a spot-up shooter. “I’m not a spark plug anymore,” he says. “Now I have to be a leader. I have to have some poise.” He dribbles upcourt against pressure from Tim Henderson, and with the high-post area open, Albrecht drives left into the lane.
Michigan’s advantage to this point had come in part from an ability to exploit the gaps left open by Louisville’s pressure. “They were overplaying us,” says Albrecht. “Their defense creates offense. It can create offense for them, or it can create offense for us. They’re trying to get turnovers, but if you take care of the ball, guys are going to be open. You’re going to have space to attack.”
Albrecht takes another dribble into the lane. “Honestly,” he says, “I can’t remember ever being this aggressive attacking the rim.” Dieng sits back to go for a block,6 and as he rises, Albrecht lofts a floater that reaches near the top of the backboard before dropping down and in.
On his way back on defense, there is no celebration, no trash talk. Albrecht opens his mouth only to direct teammates to their positions. He has settled down. Now, Albrecht realizes, he’s in full control of the game.
So does Louisville. “It was sometime around here,” he says, “Peyton Siva came up and nudged me and said something like, ‘You’re not supposed to be this good. What the hell, man?’”
9:04 — Michigan 22, Louisville 17
Now starts the Wolverines’ run. Albrecht to McGary to Stauskas — “My favorite play of the game,” Albrecht says — for 3. Albrecht drawing a foul on a backdoor cut and hitting a free throw. Stauskas to McGary for a midrange jumper. Albrecht, off the dribble, again, for 3.
There are moments in the Michigan huddle during that first half when Albrecht’s teammates stand around in silence, hands on their heads, staring at him. “There was a lot of disbelief,” he says. “It was kind of like, ‘Is this shit for real?’”
In this moment, just after his 3 puts the Wolverines up 31-21 and Albrecht jogs back down the court as if step-back 23-footers are little more than layups, he feels as if he might be able to finish Louisville off, almost all by himself. “We are so close,” he says, watching it now, “to completely running them out of the gym.”
3:56 — Michigan 31, Louisville 21
For a moment longer, it looks as if that might happen. Albrecht is still rolling, still turning the biggest game of his life into a personal game of H-O-R-S-E. Here he catches the ball near half court and dribbles against Henderson. The noise builds, the crowd now tingling in anticipation of whatever he might do next. Near the top of the key, Albrecht stops and turns with a hesitation dribble as if he’s about to hand off to Hardaway. Instead, he keeps possession and dribbles hard into the paint, past Henderson, to loft a layup high off the glass. It’s good. The crowd nearly bursts, and Vitale screams, “I can’t believe it!”
And if ever Albrecht could freeze a moment in time, this would be it. Louisville calls timeout and the whistle blows and he jogs to the sideline, screaming at his teammates and his coaches. Stauskas shoves him. Burke bumps him. Robinson starts yelling on the way to the huddle, “I told y’all he could ball! I told y’all!” Michigan is up 12. Albrecht has nearly doubled his career high. On the sport’s biggest night, he is the game’s biggest star. Hours later Albrecht would sit in his hotel room, responding to the 500 or so texts that had popped up on his phone. Stauskas, his roommate, would laugh. “Dude,” he would say, “do you know what the hell you just did?” The next morning, at the urging of Stauskas and Albrecht’s brothers, Albrecht would let fly perhaps his most monumental long shot. He tweeted at supermodel Kate Upton: “hey saw you at the game last night, thanks for coming out! Hope to see you again [smiley].”7 In the days and months to follow, he would go back and re-watch this moment time and again, still unable to keep from smiling, still barely believing it had all happened just the way he remembered.
But all that would come later. There are still 24 minutes left to play, time remaining for Michigan to blow the game open or for Louisville to come roaring back. Looking at the screen, Albrecht knows what happens next. “This,” he says, “is where I usually turn the game off.”
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — March 3, 2014
3:51 — Michigan 33, Louisville 21
Luke Hancock has been patient. He’s been sitting here, in the back corner of the Louisville film room, watching for 16 minutes as Albrecht carves up his team. “He’s just killing us,” Hancock says. “People talked like we hadn’t had him on the scouting report, but we did. We definitely knew who he was. We knew he was a shooter. But some of the stuff he was doing — you expect that from Trey Burke, maybe, but not from Spike Albrecht. Our discussion in the huddle was about rebounding, one, but then about, ‘How do we stop this guy?’ It was getting out of hand.”
Hancock has only two points at this point. “I was in shock a little bit,” he says. “I was thinking, I can’t believe we’re down like this. And with the way they shoot the ball, it’s going to be really hard to come back. We have to gamble more on defense. That’s the only way to come back. But if you gamble and miss against a team like this, they can blow you out.” Hancock drew the foul that sent Burke to the bench, but otherwise, he had barely been a factor in the game. Yet with leading scorer Russ Smith struggling, Hancock has been slotted into Smith’s spot at the 2. “Look at me,” he says, pointing to himself shrugging on the screen. “I’m telling Coach that I literally have no idea what I’m supposed to do here. When I was at the 2, I didn’t know a lot of the plays.”
But that’s OK. Over the next few minutes, Hancock won’t need set plays. He settles things down on a drive that draws a foul. Two free throws, both good, now 33-23. He’s just getting started.
3:01 — Michigan 35, Louisville 23
The first three come off an inbounds play. Siva into Dieng. With Michigan freshman Caris LeVert guarding him, Hancock curls from the corner to the elbow. “Usually I would set a down screen on this,” he says. “But I’ve got a freshman on me. I knew he wouldn’t be ready for me to go high.” He takes a handoff at the elbow. Earlier, during warm-ups, Hancock had shot poorly. “That never gets in my head,” he says. “I remember it now, but I wasn’t thinking about then.” His shot drops through the net.
2:47 — Michigan 35, Louisville 26
This looks like a mundane play. Robinson breaks the press and Hancock follows him. “I was frustrated,” he says. “They shouldn’t get the ball up so easy.” He reaches. The whistle blows. It’s his second. Pitino, like Beilein, makes a habit of benching players who pick up two first-half fouls. “I’m ready to sit right now,” Hancock says. “I’m sure I’m about to come out.”
But now, with his team down nine and badly in need of scoring, Pitino leaves Hancock in.
It is, perhaps, the most important moment of the game.
2:36 — Michigan 36, Louisville 26
It takes 11 seconds for Pitino’s decision to pay off. Early in the shot clock, Dieng catches the ball in the same spot he did moments before. Again, Hancock curls from the corner to the elbow. Again, he takes a handoff.
But this time, as Hancock watches himself rise, he says, “This is probably not a good look. It doesn’t feel good either. My wrists don’t really snap. I kind of short-arm it. But I’m just thinking we have to do something.”
1:55 — Michigan 36, Louisville 29
Siva grabs a rebound and bolts up the court, ball in hand. “I’m screaming at him,” Hancock says. “I’m supposed to be on his right wing, but I’m letting him know that I’m trailing. We’ve done this so many times. I’m right behind him, just waiting for it.” Siva shovels a quick pitch back to Hancock, who catches it two steps in front of the half-court decal. “It’s deep,” he says, “but I think it’s a shot I would take in any situation.”
He rises, fires, hits. Four-point game. Beilein calls timeout. The red half of the arena stands and screams. The Cardinals leap off the bench, bumping Hancock as he walks, stoic and silent, to the sideline. He has 13 points, 11 in the last two minutes. I ask him to pause the tape. So at this point, I ask, is the moment starting to register at all? That you’ve just hit three straight 3s in the national title game? “Not yet,” he says. “Not really. I know I’m feeling good. I know I’m making shots. But it doesn’t even quite sink in that we’re really in it now. We’re down four. We’d dug ourselves such a big hole, it’s almost a surprise that we’ve come back so fast.”
Thinking back on his performance, Hancock wonders if Michigan could have done something to stop it. “They had the wrong person guarding me,” he says. “They should have put a big guard on me — either Hardaway or Robinson. All game it was either Burke, who’s small, or LeVert, who’s a freshman, or Spike, who’s small and a freshman. I could get shots against those guys.”
1:04 — Michigan 36, Louisville 32
There is time for one more. Hancock catches on the left elbow, guarded by LeVert. Dieng sets a screen, and Michigan’s Jordan Morgan shows hard enough to force Hancock backward as he dribbles right. With Hancock out near the hashmark, Morgan runs back to cover Dieng. Hancock takes one more dribble, steps in, and shoots. He is 30 feet from the basket. There are 27 seconds on the shot clock. LeVert is running at him, leaping to challenge the shot.
“Yeah, I probably wouldn’t take this one if I wasn’t really feeling it,” he says. “But, you know, I’m stepping into it, my feet are set. Why not?”
Good. One-point game. On the next possession, Louisville makes an adjustment on defense. There is a down screen off the ball involving Hancock and Dieng. “Now we’re switching on that,” Hancock says. “Before, Gorgui would have come all the way out to the perimeter, but now we’re leaving him inside. We don’t want Spike to get a chance to take Gorgui off the dribble. We want him to have to dribble against a guard instead.” Moments later, Hancock meets Albrecht on a ball screen. He reaches, pokes the ball loose, and sends everyone scrambling to the floor. Wayne Blackshear grabs possession and shovels the ball upcourt to Siva, who catches, turns, and in one motion, lobs to Montrezl Harrell.8
Harrell dunks. The comeback is complete. Albrecht’s hot hand feels like a distant memory. It took 16 minutes for Michigan to build its lead and four minutes for Louisville — Hancock, mostly — to make it disappear.9
Halftime — Michigan 38, Louisville 37
“Wow,” says Hancock. “Look at that.”
That is the Michigan locker room. Beilein allows a CBS camera crew to film his halftime speech. He is projecting confidence, sounding upbeat. All around him, the players are clapping, some yelling, Let’s go! But, says, Hancock: “That looks nothing like our locker room looked right then. We were all screaming, jumping up and down. We were so fired up. At that moment, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind: We were going to win that game. You look at them, and it’s just not the same. They look shell-shocked.”
We’ll keep this quick. The wild swings have ended. Albrecht has tired; Hancock has cooled; Burke has returned; order has been restored. Now we get the game we were promised: the country’s two most talented teams, operating near peak capacity. For Hancock, the story of the second half was simple. Deep into the half, with Louisville beginning to pull away, he points at the screen. “You can tell they’re exhausted right now,” he says. “Not Trey, because he sat for most of the first half, but everyone else. Hardaway’s exhausted. Albrecht’s exhausted.10 McGary’s having trouble getting up and down the floor. That’s what we do to people.”
Later on, by phone, Siva adds: “We felt like we were the best-conditioned team in the country. We said it all year, and we believed it. We practiced harder than anybody. Whoever we play, it’s a matter of time. Their legs are going to get tired. They can’t sustain it. They can’t keep up with us. Every single person on the team thinks, I’m in better shape than whoever’s guarding me.” He explains the Cardinals’ conditioning regimen. “I hear a lot of teams talking about the offseason, running on tracks,” he says. “Coach Pitino hates tracks. For us, it was just our regular practices. We would go full-court, pressuring each other and trapping, for the first 30 minutes of almost every practice. Then, at the end of practice, when you’re exhausted and you just want to be done, we would go full-court again for another 20 minutes. That’s miserable. Those were the miserable moments. It sucked, but it was also fun.”
Tired or not, Michigan hung around. Burke picked up where he left off early in the first half. He scored 17 in the second, and in all the hype about Albrecht’s and Hancock’s performances, it’s often forgotten that he finished as the game’s leading scorer, with 24. “I had never felt the way I felt coming out for the second half of that game,” Burke says by phone. “I was so ready to go. I was so confident that I could lead us. And I felt good out there. But a few plays just didn’t go our way.”
Back in the Louisville film room, Hancock watches the most important of those plays. Albrecht throws up a wild layup, which bounces hard off the backboard and leads to a Louisville break. Siva catches it across half court, as he and Burke both sprint toward the basket. They jump together — Siva for the dunk, Burke for the block — and meet at the rim. The whistle blows.
Watching it on tape, Hancock is quiet, so I ask: foul or block? “Oh, that’s a block, no question,” he says. Yet the refs call a foul, and Siva steps to the line. “He met me at the rim,” Siva says now. “It’s just one of those plays that could go either way. But I got the call. What am I supposed to do — blow the free throws? I wouldn’t have complained if the ref didn’t call it, but he did. That’s just how it goes.”
Today, when Burke thinks back on the game, that call still gnaws at him. “In the moment, I was frustrated,” he says, “but I didn’t hang on to it. You know, I’m still thinking, OK, we’re still right in this. We’re still in a position to win this game. But for like a month after, I kept thinking about it. What if he didn’t call that foul? How would the game have turned out?”
We can’t know, of course. All we can know is that Siva made both free throws to put Louisville up five, and moments later Dieng hit a jumper to extend the lead to seven, and that Louisville maintained control over the final five minutes, and that soon enough red confetti was falling and Louisville fans were dancing, and Hancock was wandering around the court, grin on his face, hands in the air, looking for someone to hug. Final score: 82-76.
“The biggest thing I remember is that I just wanted to have someone to share it with,” Hancock says as he watches himself and his teammates embracing each other, the realization of what they’ve accomplished beginning to show in their smiles. “You’ve gone through all of this together, as a team, and so when it’s over, you’re just looking to grab somebody and hug them.”
As for Albrecht, he would enjoy his newfound fame later, but not in this moment. “I was just completely devastated,” he says. “It was a fun night, and looking back on it is really cool, but I would still gladly have traded it — if I had not played at all, but we still won, that would have been better. Then I’d be sitting here with a fat-ass ring.”
Minutes later, Hancock accepted his Most Outstanding Player trophy and climbed a ladder to cut down the nets. He looked to the stands, at Row 1, Seat 1. There sat his father, Bill, who was sick with cancer. Days before the final, Hancock hadn’t been sure if his dad would be able to make it to the game. In the following weeks, Hancock would give Bill the piece of the net he’d cut down. He would travel back to Roanoke, Virginia, spending much of the final weeks of his father’s life at home.
But in this moment, Hancock watches himself hug Wayne Blackshear. He thinks back on that night, he and Siva sitting in their hotel room, watching the highlights on repeat. He tries, as best as he can, to describe his emotions then: “It was just so much joy. Indescribable joy. It wasn’t, ‘Yeah, Michigan! We beat you!’ It was just, ‘Oh man, we won.’”
“We won, we won, we won.”