ATLANTA -- Why can the Final Four be so good? Why can the biggest stages of any sport continue to give us surprise in our eyes, chills on our skin and bolts of energy to our brains?
Because of nights and performances like the one Luke Hancock had inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday. Because of Hancock, the No. 1-seeded Louisville Cardinals will play for a national title Monday night. Because of Hancock, Louisville dodged a disappointing season and extended its campaign to the final possible date, Monday, April 8.
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What a payoff this is for the junior who averages not even eight points and 23 minutes. He's the sixth man who was the best man against No. 9 Wichita State in the Cards' come-from-behind 72-68 win in the national semifinals. The man who was designated captain before he ever played a game in a Cardinals uni. The man who showed up at Louisville by way of George Mason and demanded a different kind of team work ethic before he even participated in a practice.
His senior teammate, Peyton Siva -- the same Siva who Rick Pitino has called among the greatest men he's ever coached and a unique leader -- that Peyton Siva spoke of Hancock's leadership. And here's the twist I love. If not for Jim Larranaga taking a job in Miami two years ago and leaving George Mason after 14 seasons? Hancock is probably with Mason, back at home after a run to the 2013 CBI finals.
And then you learn Hancock has endured ligament tears and his shoulders popping out of their sockets and it all seems so good. Players can usually only get redemption by way of big performances. Hancock had his share here.
"This is a young man that Fred Hina, our trainer, said to me, 'Coach, I've been around so many baseball injuries, trainer for the Mets for 11 years, Luke's separated shoulder was a bad one," Pitino said. "'The second one, I've never seen so much damage in my life. The doctor said it was the worst shoulder he ever operated on. That man, in the beginning of the year, it took him a half-hour of warmups just to lift his arm above his shoulder. I said, 'Is he going to play this year?' He said, 'No one but Luke will play.' Toughest kid I've ever seen since I've been a trainer.' "
Basically, Hancock had little business even being available to play this season, let alone do what he's done. Hancock had 20 points Saturday, and it wasn't even the team high. That was Russ Smith and his 21. But ask Louisville fans and players and coaches and they'll tell you -- this game was won because of Hancock. To Pitino's own admission, four of his starters had among their worst games of this season. Maybe their worst; certainly their worst as a collective. WSU led by 12 with less than 14 to go. Louisville never led by more than five.
To Smith, Hancock "exploded." Hancock is this good because Smith is that good. They're the ones who've been going up against each other on scout teams for the past two seasons. Hancock delivered a 6-of-9 shooting night, plus four rebounds and two steals. He gave Louisville the timely, mandatory big plays in big spots that it needed to push Wichita State away from making some history.
"He's the best passer, the clutchest shooter and free-throw shooter, and one of the smartest players to know what to do in crucial situations," Pitino added.
The best offensive player on this team: it's Hancock. And he needed to show it now.
With Kevin Ware snuggled up against the court and walk-on Tim Henderson also providing a few lifetime moments for himself, it turned into a pretty seminal night for Louisville, should it go on to win a national title, which it will be favored to do Monday night.
"I'm so happy he had the game of his life," Smith said, later adding, "I'm thankful that I have a guy like that on our team, you know, a leader, a guy who can step up in the big situations, a guy who can keep the team together, and he does it coming off the bench."
Even when Louisville got down by double digits and Pitino called time, he didn't lose his composure. He'd stand there, calmly clap his hands and wait for his team to huddle up. This was about pace and keeping belief. Kevin Ware could not merely inspire this group to get to one more game.
All that inspiration and sentimentalism goes out the window if you don't have someone rising to the moment. And for more than 20 minutes, no one did. Wichita State legitimately had control and the feel of winning this game.
But because of Hancock, Louisville again proved its rank. That's 15 in a row for the Cards because they've got depth. They've got options on the offensive end that combine with their top-ranked defense, a killer combo of a marriage that makes for a great team in modern college basketball.
On Saturday Hancock wasn't a hero; he was the next man, the latest best man to give proof to reality: Louisville is still the best team in college basketball, and it's been that way for most of this season.