ARLINGTON, Texas -— Trey Burke and Michigan had the perfect response for everyone who said they were too young or not tough enough to make it all the way to Atlanta.
The championship trophy for the South Region is headed back to Ann Arbor, while another fabulous group of young Wolverines is going to the Final Four.
Led by Burke and sharp-shooting guard Nik Stauskas, one of three freshmen starters, Michigan controlled Florida from start to finish in a 79-59 win Sunday.
“It means the world -- 20 years has passed and we haven’t been on that stage yet,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., the junior elder statesman in the starting lineup.
The last time Michigan made it this far was the Fab Five era of the early 1990s, what until now had been considered the program’s glory years.
Might be time to start rethinking that.
Once they got ahead Sunday, the Wolverines (30-7) maintained a double-digit lead against the experienced Gators (29-8), who won the regular-season title in the Southeastern Conference, but lost in a regional final for the third straight year.
“We’ve almost become numb to it now. Been here before,” Gators junior center Patric Young said. “I just really wish we were out there cutting the nets down.”
Stauskas scored 22 points while making all six of his 3-pointers. Burke, the South Region’s most outstanding player, scored 15 points, and 6-foot-10 freshman Mitch McGary had 11 points and nine rebounds.
When the game ended, Burke and several of his teammates went to the opposite side of the court toward Michigan fans behind press row with fingers raised. Fans were chanting, “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine!”
And great to be young.
“Seeing it all come together, I don’t what to say,” sixth-year Wolverines coach John Beilein said. “I’m a little bit speechless.”
Later in the day in Indianapolis, Louisville won one for their seriously injured teammate Kevin Ware.
As the final seconds ticked down, Chane Behanan put Ware’s jersey on and stood at the end of the Louisville bench, screaming. Cardinals fans chanted “Kevin Ware! Kevin Ware!”
“We won this for him,” coach Rick Pitino said. “We were all choked up with emotion for him. We’ll get him back to normal. We’ve got great doctors, great trainers. We talked about it every timeout, ‘Get Kevin home.”’
This was the first time Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski had met in the regional finals since that 1992 classic that ended with Christian Laettner’s improbable buzzer-beater, a game now considered one of the best in NCAA tournament history.
This game will be remembered, too, but for a very different—and much more somber—reason.
With 6:33 left in the first half, Ware, a sophomore who has played a key role in Louisville’s 14-game winning streak, jumped to try and block Tyler Thornton’s 3-point shot. When he landed, his right leg snapped midway between his ankle and knee, the bone skewing almost at a right angle. Ware dropped to the floor right in front of the Louisville bench and, almost in unison, his teammates turned away in horror. Thornton grimaced, putting his hand to his mouth as he turned around.
Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear fell to the floor and Behanan looked as if he was going to be sick on the court, kneeling on his hands and feet. Luke Hancock patted Ware’s chest as doctors worked on the sophomore and Smith walked away, pulling his jersey over his eyes.
Pitino had tears in his eyes as he tried to console his players. Dieng draped an arm around the shoulders of Smith, who repeatedly wiped at his eyes and shook his head. The Cardinals gathered at halfcourt to try and regroup before Pitino called them over to the sideline, saying Ware wanted to talk to them before he left.
News of the injury dominated social media. Joe Theismann whose NFL career ended with a horrific broken leg, said on Twitter, “Watching Duke/ Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware.”
Fans chanted “Kevin! Kevin” as Ware was loaded onto the stretcher, and Pitino wiped away tears again as Ware was wheeled off the court.
The Cardinals struggled to put the horrific injury behind them, missing four of their next five shots along with two free throws after play resumed. They regrouped after a timeout, with Smith’s finger roll sparking a 12-6 run to finish the half that gave them a 35-32 lead.