LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They haven’t stopped partying in Louisville.
The latest celebration Wednesday was a bit more structured as the NCAA champion Cardinals’ men’s team and runner-up women’s squad received heroes’ welcomes at the KFC Yum! Center. A near-capacity crowd awash in red thanked players and coaches for providing one of the most satisfying weeks ever with both playing for titles and the men delivering Louisville’s first championship in 27 years.
Both Cardinals programs responded with short expressions of gratitude, allowing men’s coach Rick Pitino to have the final word.
Hoarse from a whirlwind Final Four including his election to the Hall of Fame followed by his second title, Pitino drew a huge cheer by asking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we somehow got back to Dallas?” for next year’s championship.
That remains to be seen for Louisville’s men, who were still digesting Monday night’s 82-76 victory over Michigan in Atlanta.
In case they weren’t sure of what they achieved, the stage featured tangible reminders. The NABC crystal ball trophy centered a display that included both of Big East championship trophies along with this year’s hardware for winning it all.
The women’s runner-up trophy was also displayed, symbols that elicited pride from University President James Ramsey.
“I’ve got a question to ask you: is this a pretty good time to be a Louisville Cardinal?” Ramsey said to the first of many large cheers inside the arena that included a packed plaza of fans.
Athletic director Tom Jurich echoed that sentiment before yielding to players and coaches from both programs, who received rock-star introductions and several ovations.
One of the biggest was for Cardinals guard Kevin Ware, whose horrific right leg break in the Midwest Region final victory over Duke made him an overnight sensation and the sentimental hero of Louisville’s title run. He ambled up on the steps without crutches before grabbing them to walk to his chair, his words drowned out by a crescendo of cheers.
Guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith drew their share of screaming as well — particularly Smith, who wasn’t scheduled to speak until fans began chanting “We want Russ!”
After Louisville’s clinching victory, Russ Smith Sr. said his son plans to enter the NBA draft. The well-informed crowd’s message was loud and clear as they greeted the Cardinals leading scorer with chants of “One more year! One more year!”
Smith said nothing about his plans but seemed to thank fans for a body of work supporting him during his career.
“As far as myself, I just want to say thank you, guys, for a tremendous three years,” Smith said. “I’ll never forget this.”
While many present were there to celebrate the men’s national championship, there was plenty of love for the Cardinals’ women.
Louisville’s surprising run through the tournament positioned the Cardinals to win dual before Connecticut squashed that dream with a 93-60 rout Tuesday night in New Orleans, Fans didn’t soon forget the fifth-seeded Cardinals’ memorable charge, highlighted by a monumental 82-81 upset of defending champion and top-seeded Baylor in the regional semifinal.
Junior guard Shoni Schimmel led that run with shooting, penetration and confidence, all of which were shown on the video screen. One of many players wearing T-shirts saying `Party Crashers’ on the back in reference to their unexpected presence in the Final Four, she hinted that a Final Four return was possible.
“Thank you for everything and we’ll be back next year, don’t worry,” Schimmel said.
Pitino brought the official celebration to an emotional close by expressing his gratitude for the opportunity to work in a program that allowed him to achieve some personal milestones. Besides the Hall of Fame selection and becoming the first coach to lead two schools to national titles, last week saw his son, Richard, hired as Minnesota’s coach and a thoroughbred he co-owns qualified for the Kentucky Derby.
None of that compared to what he felt upon watching a replay of Louisville’s victory in New Orleans while attending the women’s final. Seeing Chane Behanan’s rebounding performance in the men’s final made the 60-year-old cry in a Bourbon Street bar, but he was all smiles in the arena that has fueled his success.
And he made sure fans remembered how the Cardinals’ run has made them feel.
“Back to back Big East championships, back to back Final Fours, with a national championship,” Pitino said. “It’s time to celebrate.”
AP Freelance Writer Josh Abner contributed to this report.
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