Staff Photo: Jason Braverman The basket is lowered for injured Louisville star Kevin Ware as he cuts down the net following Monday's NCAA National Championship game at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA -- Sure, the attendance records set at the Georgia Dome for the 2013 Final Four will likely be broken when the event moves to the more spacious Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, next year.
But for more than one shining moment, the combined 149,676 fans in attendance at the NCAA's biggest basketball celebration, including 74,326 in Monday night's national championship game -- both all-time records -- were treated to many memorable moments.
That is especially true for the many fans pulling for Louisville, which brought home its second national title with an 82-76 win over Michigan in the title game late Monday night.
It was also the second for Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, who became the first men's basketball coach to ever win two NCAA titles at two different schools -- he won one in 1996 at Louisville's in-state archrival Kentucky -- and came on the same night it was announced he would be part of the 2013 class to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
But the 37-year coaching veteran was still more in awe of the memorable game his Cardinals, and Michigan, put on.
"You know, that's the great thing about it," Pitino said in the postgame news conference. "Sometimes, expectations get so high. I knew it would be a great game. You never know if you're going to win. The other night (in the semifinals), I knew that Michigan-Syracuse wouldn't be a great game. I knew our game against Wichita State wasn't going to be a great game because of the type of defense Syracuse and Wichita play.
"I knew this game would be a great game. Two great offensive teams doing battle. Two great backcourts, great frontcourts, great talent. I was so happy to see that because I knew it would be a great game. (I) didn't know we'd win, but I knew it would be a great game."
In fact, the Cardinals (35-5) and Wolverines (31-8) provided one of the more memorable championship games in recent years, with plenty individual moments of drama. There were unsung heroes, such as Louisville's Luke Hancock, who became the first reserve to earn the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player award by scoring the most points from a bench player (22) in the title game in 49 years.
Michigan had its own Spike Albrecht, who also came off the bench to score 17 points, more than 15 points over his season average, to give the Wolverines not only a fighting chance, but the lead much of the first half.
However, it was Hancock who evoked memories of Harold Jensen, the super sub who helped Villanova to its improbable 1985 national title, by shooting a sizzling 5 of 6 from the floor -- including a perfect 5 of 5 from 3-point range -- and 7 of 10 from the free-throw line.
"(I am) just blessed to be in this situation," said Hancock, who scored 16 of his points in the first half, including hitting 3-pointers on four straight possessions in a 1:24 span late in the first half that helped Louisville erase what was once as much as a 12-point Michigan lead. "I'm just so happy for our team. I'm happy multiple guys got to contribute on this great run."
There was also plenty of emotion for both teams.
In Michigan's case, it was a reunion of all the members of the "Fab Five" that helped the Wolverines to the 1993 title game as freshmen, including Chris Webber, among the thousands of fans clad in Maize and Blue in the crowd.
The reunion did not go unnoticed by the current Wolverines, who are led by a young group of five freshmen of their own, three of whom start.
"Yeah, I mean, it meant a lot," said junior Tim Hardaway Jr., one of the few upperclassmen in the Wolverines' regular rotation, who finished with 12 points, five rebounds and four assists Monday night. "You know, it feels great when you have alumni come back that played in this program before, you know, really show you some love. (It's) sad we didn't get the job done, but we were happy they were there."
But without question, the most emotional moment of the night came in the midst of Louisville's postgame title celebration.
As the Cardinals were taking part in the traditional cutting down of the nets, one basket was lowered so that Kevin Ware, a sophomore guard whose horrific leg fracture in the Midwest Regional final against Duke captured national attention, could participate.
"It meant the world to me," the Rockdale County graduate said of the gesture. "I honestly didn't expect it. You fight so hard all season to get to this point and we're national champions. I don't really have any other words to describe how I feel right now. I'm so proud of these guys, it's crazy."
Ware was definitely as source of inspiration for the Cardinals since his injury, especially Monday night.
"It was a big motivator for us just for the simple fact I think Kevin Ware would do anything to be back out there," said Louisville sophomore forward Chane Behanan, who posted a double-double for the Cardinals on Monday with 15 points and 12 rebounds. "We (were) all locked in for him, ourselves, our coaching staff (and) also for our fans and our family.
"Kevin was a big part of this team. To see him going down like he did, it was devastating. It was a big motivator for us."