But on Monday night, their work was done.
At the conclusion of one of the most entertaining and memorable NCAA tournament championship games, the scoreboard at the Georgia Dome read: Louisville 82, Michigan 76.
Wearing “Cut the Net” T-shirts, the Cardinals allowed themselves to reach to the rim and snip at the net in an NCAA tournament tradition that is as concrete a sign of victory as the scoreboard.
Except for one player.
The hoop was lowered for Kevin Ware, the inspirational leader the Cardinals rallied around after he snapped his leg gruesomely in the Elite Eight. He cut down the last pieces, raised his crutches and wore the net around his neck.
“I look back on it and say, ‘Man, that was really special,’ ” coach Rick Pitino said. “I was glad to be part of this team.”
Louisville capped a brilliant tournament run.
The Cardinals carried the burden of the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed expertly en route to the program’s first title since 1986. They beat fourth-seeded Michigan in the NCAA championship game, erasing a 12-point deficit for a second straight game, this one featuring seven lead changes.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino added to his legacy by becoming the only coach to win titles at two programs, adding a ring to the one he won in 1996 at Kentucky.
He’ll have something to remember it by, saying he will make good on his promise to his players to get a tattoo if they won the championship.
“We beat a great basketball team probably because I have the toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” he said.
With the team’s stars struggling, Luke Hancock showed up again, helping bring the Cardinals back from 12 points down with four straight 3-pointers near the end of the first half.
Hancock, a George Mason transfer whose ill father watched the game in person, made all five of his 3-point attempts and bested his 20-point Final Four outing with 22 in the championship game.
“As soon as we started playing Luke Hancock more our halfcourt offense became special,” Pitino said.
The crowd howled “Luuuuke” as his image was shown on screens at the Dome while he celebrated on stage with his teammates and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, the first non-starter to earn the honor.
“I wasn’t recruited real high out of high school,” he said. “I’m so excited for our team to be in this situation. It’s been a long road. There’s really no way to describe how I feel that my dad was here. It just means a lot.”
Point guard Peyton Siva may have been overshadowed Hancock and the brilliant first half of Michigan’s Spike Albrecht, but he was a master after halftime, scoring 14 of his 18 points. He added five assists and four steals with six rebounds.
Pitino questioned Siva’s conditioning throughout the game to motivate him.
“As a point guard for this team,” Siva said, “it’s my duty to create good shots, take care of the ball, play good ball, play good defense.”
Center Gorgui Dieng added eight points, eight rebounds, six assists and three blocks. Forward Chane Behanan scored 11 of his 15 points and pulled down 11 of his 12 rebounds after halftime.
“He came out today, and he was a man among boys on the boards,” Siva said of Behanan.
Michigan trailed 78-74 with 1 minute 20 seconds left. Coach John Beilein said he mistakenly waited to foul Louisville because he thought the Cardinals were in the bonus.
“It was a coaching error on my part,” he said.
Hancock and Siva made the last four free throws for the Cardinals to seal the victory.
Ware beamed as he walked on the court on crutches as confetti fell.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “I’ve never been that type of guy. These are my brothers. They got the job done. I’m so proud of them. So proud of them.”
The first half belonged to Albrecht, Michigan’s freshman guard from Crown Point, Ind., who made 6 of 7 shots and all four 3-point attempts to lead the Wolverines with 17 points while national player of the year Trey Burke sat on the bench with two early fouls.
Albrecht was held scoreless after halftime.
“I have so much trust in that young man and the roll he’s been on,” said Beilein, who was coaching in his first title game.
Burke finished with a game-high 24 points and said he is unsure about coming back for his junior season.
“It hurts a lot,” said Burke, who won numerous player of the year awards. “A lot of people didn’t expect us to even get this far. A lot of people didn’t expect us to even get past the second round.”
Monday’s game made for a sparkling finale to a good week for Pitino.
He was named a Hall of Fame inductee earlier in the morning. His son Richard was hired to coach Minnesota earlier in the week and the horse he co-owns won the Santa Anita Derby.
The game ended a stellar tournament run for Michigan, which finished the Big Ten season in fifth place.
Loaded with young talent, the Wolverines were back in the championship game for the first time since the Fab Five lost in 1993.