ATLANTA -- A fantastic final has to end with a loser, and in this case, the player of the year walks out of the Georgia Dome without a trophy.
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Trey Burke was the reason Michigan stayed in the game for most of the second half. Spike Albrecht's terrific first 20 minutes couldn't turn into another incredible 20 minutes. Burke ended with 24 points (7-of-11 shooting), three assists and four rebounds in Michigan's 82-76 loss to Louisville at the Georgia Dome. He was 7 of 9 from the line. And he did this despite missing much of the first half with foul trouble.
Burke became the first Naismith winner to lose in the title game since Duke's Elton Brand in 1999.
"A lot of people didn't expect us to get this far," said Burke. "A lot of people didn't expect us to get past the second round. We fought. We fought up to this point, but Louisville was the better team today, and they're deserving of the win. We fought all the way, for 40 minutes -- there was never a point in time we gave up. Louisville was just a really solid team at the end of the game. ... They took care of the ball, they hit foul shots, and they were the better team."
There is irony here and commentary on team play and how vital it is. Because Russ Smith was one of the 10 best players, easily, in college basketball this year. Yet Smith's night wasn't up to his snuff. He had one big 3, but otherwise, was unreliable. Smith finished with nine points on 3-of-16 shooting, just the fourth time all year he was held to single digits.
It was the first time this tournament he failed to score 20 points. Smith missed out on a bid to join Richard Hamilton, Glen Rice, Danny Manning and Johnny Dawkins as the only players to score 20+ in six games of the same NCAA tourney. He'll have to "settle" for being the 21st man to do it five times.
Burke outplayed Smith. Clearly. He played better, in total, than everybody else on his team. Normally, when the best player on the floor plays the way Burke does, especially at point guard, a team should be close to winning.
Michigan was in it, but it didn't feel close for the final three minutes. And the game turned on this foul with 5:09 left in the game and Louisville leading by 3, which was not a foul. Burke made a great play. But the foul gets called, and it's hard to ignore how that impacted some play down the stretch.
And so now Burke, probably, ends his college career with a good performance but a bittersweet feeling. He played about as well as he could have expected, got good support from his teammates -- but it wasn't enough. That's what happens when you face the best.