For Luke Hancock, a blaze of glory

ATLANTA -- Luke Hancock wouldn't let go of the national championship trophy.

He had it in his arms at the podium. He carried it with him down to do more interviews. He walked back to the locker room, clutching it close to him.

The national title belongs to all of Louisville, to the Cardinals, to coach Rick Pitino, to everyone on the team, including the iconic Kevin Ware.

But this trophy, the culmination of 27 years since their last title, doesn't get back to the Cardinal nation without Hancock.

Seriously, who had him in their most-outstanding-player bracket? Nobody. Hancock, the onetime George Mason cast-off, was the catalyst for Louisville and the deserved most outstanding player. He had the honor of being the first non-starter to win the award -- not bad to get a first in the 75th year of the event.

"It's unbelievable," said Hancock, who had a Stanley Cup playoffs-like beard working in this NCAA tournament. "All the credit goes to my teammates. I just tried to play off Russ [Smith] and Peyton [Siva] as much as I can. They require so much attention sometimes. It's kind of unbelievable. I don't know. This is crazy."

Hancock scored 22 points off the bench in Louisville's 82-76 victory over Michigan on Monday night in one of the best national title games in the past two decades. Hancock didn't miss a 3-pointer, making all five attempts. He was money at the foul line, making 7 of 10. He didn't turn the ball over.

He also scored 20 points in Saturday's semifinal victory over Wichita State, making three 3s.

Hancock did all this while riding an emotional wave that few his age are built to handle.

He was a rock when he comforted Ware after the gruesome compound fracture in the first half of Louisville's Elite Eight win over Duke on March 31. He was here this week, dealing with angst during his greatest athletic moments as his ailing father, Bill, battled an undisclosed illness. Bill and his wife, Van, witnessed Hancock's quick shooting here in the Final Four.

"I couldn't have thought of anything better for him," Louisville teammate Tim Henderson said. "To be able to do that and have his dad witness it. It's incredible. It was like it was meant to be.

"Stuff like this happens all the time. You always have that player that goes under the radar and they just need that one big stage to shine. Luke got on the stage and he showed his stuff. I’m going to tell my grandkids I played with him. He’s a Louisville legend right now."

That's some heady stuff. But it's deserved. This is a player who never dreamed he would be in this position when he signed with George Mason.

"I wasn't recruited real high out of high school," Hancock said. "I went to prep school and picked up several offers. George Mason recruited me; coach [Jim] Larranaga made me feel like I was home at George Mason. So I went there. Then I ended up needing to transfer when he left.

"[The Louisville staff] made me feel like this was a home, that we'd have a chance to win a national title. I'm so excited for this 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's hard to put into words. I'm so excited that he was here; it just means a lot."

Hancock was the catalyst for the Cardinals in their Big East tournament victory. He was the shooter who had to make shots here at the Final Four. Michigan's Spike Albrecht was the talk of the first half with 17 points, but he didn't score in the second.

Hancock had stamina, was consistent and made more plays that mattered in each of the two games.

"It was their four shooters against Luke," Pitino said. "Luke more than held his own."

Hancock grabbed the moment, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The points, the trophy and the title won't solve his father's illness. But Bill Hancock was there to witness his son's greatest athletic achievement. The memories Luke Hancock has, he owns them forever. And in a week in which he showed his maturity and compassion for the sports world to see, he was more than the most outstanding player of a two-game event; he was a true mensch -- a person with integrity and honor when it mattered most.