ATLANTA (USATODAY.com) - The script played out like it was supposed to, like it had to. Because after a week of universal support from across the country, what other way could Kevin Ware have ended the season?
Certainly, not as a runner-up. Not after all that happened. A gruesome leg injury, an emotional response and a rallying cry followed by a week in which he became a national celebrity.
His Louisville teammates delivered the storybook ending, beating Michigan 82-76 in the national championship game at the Georgia Dome on Monday. The teammate who had motivated them throughout the past week relished an unexpected chance to cut down the nets with guys he calls his brothers.
Ware's injury was one of several motivating factors for the team, one of the many things that made the tournament run memorable for the Cardinals. Luke Hancock came off the bench to be named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, all while his father battles a serious illness that almost kept him from attending.
And Pitino capped off a memorable week with the title. Earlier Monday, he was announced as an inductee in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class.
Still, it was Ware who stole the show from the bench even as he focused on his teammates.
"I think because of the injury what makes this game bigger than what it is, even though it's the national championship," said former Cardinals forward Terrence Williams, himself wearing a Ware jersey. "I think he's humbled by it."
The net still draped around this neck, Ware reflected on what would mean the most from this journey - one that saw a devastating injury bring a flood of support. He has months of rehab ahead of him for an injury whose full effects aren't yet known. What would he remember about a moment of misfortune that brought him a week of love and support? That brought him a national title?
"Those guys, honestly," he said of his teammates. "Those guys right there competing with me not being there. ... These guys are great."
"This was a lot bigger to us than a lot of people think, so I wasn't worried," Ware said, a pile of confetti at his feet and his crutches on the court.
After each of the players had taken his trip up the ladder to cut down the nets, the basket was lowered. Leaning on his crutches, Ware finished the job. The reserve guard whose injury rallied his team and made national headlines was the last with the honors, which he didn't know was coming.
"They kind of told me last minute, so I really was thankful for that," Ware said. "It meant everything, honestly. Not being able to play but still being able to cut down the nets, that was big."
The Cardinals had been gunning for the school's first title since 1986 all year, but Ware's injury on March 31 added motivation to that pursuit. It almost derailed it too, his teammates so affected by the sight of his bone sticking six inches out of his leg that they wept on the court.
He told his teammates to just win the game, and they did. It was one of a myriad of special memories for coach Rick Pitino.
"I look back on it and say, 'That was really, really special.' I was glad to be part of this team," Pitino said. "It just happened to us, but it's really special."