The Louisville Cardinals are the 2013 NCAA Men's National Champions. I get goosebumps just typing that sentence.
It has been 27 years since Louisville has hoisted the trophy. I was born in '85 so I have no recollection of the great teams of the 80s. My Louisville fanhood can be traced back as far as I can remember. I have lived in Louisville my whole life and both of my parents are Louisville fans. Naturally, I followed the rooting interest of my parents until I was old enough to understand.
Something I learned at a young age was the weather in the Ohio Valley is unpredictable. You don't like the current weather? Stick around for another day and it will be drastically different. It was a rather mild Saturday for the 28th day of March, back in 1992. As a kid that grew up playing basketball, I love March madness so of course I was going to watch the Kentucky/Duke game that night. I had no rooting interest in it, but my older sister and her friend were teenagers and infatuated by Travis Ford and the rest of the Wildcats roster so they were cheering on the Cats. My older brother and his friend, along with the next door neighbor, were Cardinal fans and rooting against Kentucky. Kentucky was being rooted for at my house, and Duke was being cheered on at the neighbor's house. I spent quite a bit of my time during the game running back and forth between the two houses, trying to figure out which one I wanted to root for. Ultimately, I chose to go against Kentucky. Something clicked with me during that game about my fandom. A light bulb went off that made me realize exactly what it means to be a fan. I realized on this night that Kentucky is the archrival to the greatest university out there, the University of Louisville.
It was the night of the Duke/Kentucky game that my fanhood for Louisville truly came to fruition. Playing basketball in the driveway growing up, it was always a fight with my brother and cousin of who got to be DeJuan Wheat. Then Reece Gaines came along when I was in high school, and I tried to do the things he did on the court (I was rather unsuccessful). I recall Denny's last season. I didn't grasp the magnitude of it at the time, but I remember everyone calling for him to retire and saying the game had passed him by. Maybe it was true, but he still did amazing things for the program and I'm grateful for the foundation he set during his time to help propel Louisville into the elite program status.
March 21, 2001 is a date that not many remember; I had to look it up myself. It is the day that Rick Pitino was hired to be the head coach at Louisville. I remember watching the news coverage of it, and seeing fan reaction at the time, from both Louisville and Kentucky fans, and having a lot of people truly upset that he was our coach. I thought it was great and there would be final fours and championships to come. I could do nothing but shake my head at the fans filled with rage over his hiring, especially Cards fans. His first year certainly wasn't glorious, finishing at 19-13 with a 2nd round exit in the NIT, but it was a nice turnaround from Denny's 12-19 final year. The 20 win seasons started in year #2 and in just his fourth year, we were in the Final Four after an improbable comeback in the Elite 8 against West Virginia. That year, I knew we were under seeded, and getting to the Final Four proved that. We finished the season ranked 4th in the AP Poll, and 6th in the Coaches Poll, yet wound up a 4 seed. After the loss to Illinois, things certainly were looking up for us.
The next year was forgettable, missing out on the NCAA tournament. Then in 07-08, we made a run to the Elite 8 again and fell to a good North Carolina team. Earl Clark was rumored to be going to the NBA but chose to come back for his junior (and final) season. We had pieces in place to make a serious run in 2009. We started the year ranked 3rd in the country, and finished the regular season with a 25-5 record, going 16-2 in conference play. They won the Big East regular season, and breezed through the Big East Tournament in route to a number 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Opened with a 20 point win over Morehead State, then a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Siena. Then... Louisville exploded on Arizona and won by 39 in the Sweet 16. This was the team we had grown to love during the season and expected to see each night. And then Michigan State happened.
Last year, a "bridge year" as Pitino dubbed it many times, the team seemed to be playing well, playing great defense, but lost 5 of their final 7 regular season games. Talk amongst fans and media was discontent with Pitino and fans were already looking ahead to football season. Then the team found its identity to start the Big East tournament, winning 4 games in 4 days in route to a run to the Final Four where we lost to a great Kentucky team filled with NBA draft picks. Louisville had found its way back into the spotlight, and with so many key players returning, many media outlets were pegging Louisville as preseason favorites to cut the nets down in 2013.
This basketball season has been amazing to say the least. After "the broken wrist boogie monster" ran through the University of Louisville, attacking Gorgui Dieng and Teddy Bridgewater, a collective "why us" seemed to take hold in the minds of fans across the city. We lost to Duke in the Battle For Atlantis by 5 without Gorgui on the court. At that time, I hoped we'd see them again in the tournament for revenge. The team managed to keep winning, and winning big. Gorgui returned in time for the Kentucky game, with the Cards being victorious for the 1st time in 4 years. Things were looking great, the team was playing well, and then we forgot how to close a game against Syracuse the same week Louisville earned its first ever regular season number 1 ranking. The emotions of that loss in an electrified YUM Center (except for those 7 annoying Syracuse fans that were behind me...) carried over into 2 more consecutive losses to Villanova and Georgetown. We found our way again in a tight win against Pittsburgh before blowing out Marquette and Rutgers before traveling to South Bend. Timely mental errors cost of a 5 overtime game that has been beaten like a horse.
That's when the magic happened. I wish I knew the message Pitino gave his players after the Notre Dame game. Louisville closed out the regular season without another loss, winning 7 straight by an average margin of 15.4 points per game. We roared through the Big East Tournament, winning games by 19, 12, and 17 to capture the final Big East Tournament title. We were awarded with the overall number 1 seed again, and confidence in this team was overflowing. They didn't disappoint in the 2nd and 3rd round games of the NCAA Tournament, winning by 31 and 26. The parallels to 2009, though, were hard to ignore, as we were again facing a number 12 seed in the Sweet 16, in Indianapolis, as the number 1 overall seed. But this team still pulled out the victory, and advanced to face Duke in the Elite 8.
Here I am again, with a Rick Pitino coached team, facing Duke and Coach K in the Elite 8, just like it was in 1992. As mentioned, that game made something click and my fandom kicked in. This time, I would not be rooting for Duke. This time, I'm rooting for the Cards to keep the train rolling to a National Championship. Nearly 3/4 of the way through the first half, Duke brought the ball up the court, and Tyler Thornton attempted a three pointer from the right wing, directly in front of the Louisville bench, and with 6:33 to go, the game stopped. My stomache churned and I had to run out of the room to nearly vomit. My heart sank. Kevin Ware suffered an open fracture of his right leg after an awkward landing trying to contest the 3 pointer by Thornton. All of America it seemed was captured by this moment. Grotesque in nature, but amazed at the selflessness of a kid who's sports dreams were unstable at that moment in time. I cried. I cried for Kevin. I cried for his future. I cried for this team. Once the gravity of his loss set in, I got angry that once again we weren't at full health against Duke. And that's when the #WinforWare inspiration took control over the rest of the tournament. Not to be denied, the Cards won handily in the 2nd half, outscoring Duke 50-31 after halftime in route to a 22 point victory, and a 2nd straight Final Four. Kevin became a national sensation with outpouring of love and support for him and his courage through the devastating injury. Louisville used him for every bit of inspiration he could give in a gutty, 2nd half comeback performance against Wichita State to win by 4 and advance to the National Championship game.
This game was long sought after by CardNation. It had been 27 long years since Louisville had last played in the title game. Louisville was undefeated in those games, and hoped to stay that way. We were going up against the best offensive team in the country. Many analysts and experts were talking about Michigan's offense and about Louisville's stout defense, but they were dismissive of Louisville offensive potency, especially in the postseason. Louisville didn't create a large amount of turnovers or have a lot of transition baskets last night, but our offense shined in a game that we needed it the most. Cool-hand Luke made his presence known throughout the game, and helped will this team to victory and a National Championship. I have grown to love this team over the course of this season, and it is sad to see it come to an end, but we couldn't ask for a better ending. This group worked their tails off this year, and I couldn't be more proud of them. Finally, I get to cherish the memories of the Cards cutting down the championship nets. It is certainly something I will remember forever.
I don't know if I'm going to be recharged emotionally tonight for the women's game, but we have a chance to win both in the same year, and that is super special.
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