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By Mark Chalifoux
Most pundits expected Louisville to be in the national championship game, but no one expected Luke Hancock to play an important role. The Cardinals roster is full of stars, Russ Smith had an excellent tournament before the Final Four, Peyton Siva is a strong point guard and center Gorgui Dieng is a projected first-round draft pick. Luke Hancock was just a sharpshooter off the bench. And then he became the first bench player to ever win the Most Outstanding Player honors in the Final Four.
The junior forward from Roanoke, Virginia was a solid, yet not spectacular, player off the bench this season. He provided some scoring punch at times, knocking down his threes at a 40 percent clip and averaging 8 points per game. His scoring came in waves; five points in one game, 19 the next. He put together a solid streak in the Big East tournament, averaging 11 points per game.
He seemed to lose that momentum early in the tournament. Through the first four games, he shot only 33 percent from 3 and averaged less than 7 points per game. In the Final Four, the sharpshooting Hancock took his game to another level. Against Wichita State, Hancock knocked down three of his five three-pointers and led the Cardinals with 20 points in the 72-68 win. In the National Championship, Hancock made all five of his threes and seven free throws to lead Louisville with 22 points.
His shooting helped pull the Cardinals back into the game after they fell behind by double digits early to Michigan. At one point, he scored 14 straight points for Louisville. Impressively, he managed to play this well while dealing with off-the-court personal struggles of having an ill parent and after witnessing his teammate suffer a gruesome injury in the Elite 8 round.
It’s easy to write off Hancock’s streak as just a player getting hot at the right time but to put in perspective: he is the first bench player in 75 years to earn the Most Outstanding Player honors. He shot 80 percent from beyond the arc in the Final Four and bailed his teammates out of a dangerous hole in the title game.
Louisville’s championship run has plenty of storylines, from their Hall of Fame head coach, to the standout stars and the gruesome injury to Kevin Ware that captivated the country, but it was an oft-overlooked, sharpshooting reserve who stole the stage in the biggest game of all.
Mark Chalifoux is a college basketball contributor for CBS Local Digital Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @markchalifoux on Twitter.