LITTLE ROCK — Three-point shooters, they come in all sizes, and college basketball teams can’t win big games without them.
Louisville’s is 6-foot-6; Michigan’s is eight inches shorter. Both the Cardinals’ Luke Hancock and the Wolverines’ Spike Albrecht crafted a perfect 12 on four shots apiece in the first half Monday night in Atlanta. Their can’t-miss moments comprised the opening act for the engrossing drama that was the NCAA title game.
Albrecht’s bombs, punctuated by a layup, gave Michigan a 12-point lead; Hancock’s four of a kind in 99 seconds reduced the lead to one. As a result, the season was condensed into 20 minutes and every fan who was not invested emotionally or monetarily in the outcome enjoyed the show.
The game was superbly entertaining and the reason is simple — both teams shot the ball extremely well. How many times do we see one or both teams in the championship game struggle to make anything. I don’t remember one short-arm shot — a sign of tension — during the evening.
Late in the game, both teams were shooting 54 percent from the field. Each team made eight 3s, Louisville tried 16, Michigan two more. During the 18-game Southeastern Conference season, Florida was the league’s best from long range, shooting 39 percent. Arkansas was one of three teams under 30 percent.
A team shooting from inside the arc has to make four more shots just to break even with a team that makes eight 3s and the math doesn’t take into account how good long-range shooters affect the defense. Not only did the superb outside shooting make for some punch and counter-punch in the first half, it facilitated the second-half play of the point guards. Louisville’s Peyton Siva and Michigan’s Trey Burke are excellent at getting to the basket and neither defense could squeeze them exclusively and ignore the 3.
Hancock’s fifth 3 upped the margin to 10 and his nothing-but-net free throws were good for 80-74 with 29 seconds to play and he deserved to be name Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, but there is a Louisville sub whose stat line consists of three minutes and one steal against Michigan who had much to do with the Cardinals playing on Monday night.
Tim Henderson’s time in the spotlight lasted all of 58 seconds, but his back-to-back 3s were so vital to the rally against Wichita State that he earned a Google. A walk-on, he sat out more than a dozen games, averaged less than four minutes per when he got on the court, and made 4-of-17 3s all year.
Following the 72-68 decision, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he was shocked: "Not shocked that he made them, just that he had the gumption to take them, then take it again."
—Post-game analysts criticized Michigan coach John Beilein for keeping Burke on the bench during Hancock’s rapid-fire 3s. Nobody mentioned that Albrecht had an opportunity to show off because Burke was on the bench.
—Pitino benched Russ Smith to start the second half after a 1-of-9 20 minutes and Smith made two horrendous errors late in the game. A cross-court pass was too high for everybody and he fired up a 3 after an offensive rebound earned a new shot clock in the final minutes.
—Despite the heroics of Hancock, Siva, Chane Benahan, and others and the emotional glow emanating from the Kevin Ware storyline, the Final Four showcased a problem that is only going to get worse. With 250-pounders such as Benahan and Michigan’s Mitch McGary, the game is extremely physical and impossible to officiate. The three-man crew missed some calls, but they probably could call something on most every rebound, same as officials could blow the whistle for holding on every pass.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.