Atlanta pulls off a very memorable Final Four

The basketball floor has been broken down, the confetti vacuumed up. The last of the red- or maize-clad fans have made their way through security at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Jim Nance is on to Augusta.

The buzz of the Final Four began to fade Tuesday, like the Atlanta skyline in a rearview mirror driving up I-75. But the culmination of the NCAA tournament’s 75th anniversary always will be one to remember.

A record crowd of 74,326 showed up at the Georgia Dome for the final Monday night. TV ratings for the tournament were as high as they’ve been in 19 years, and Louisville became both national champions and media darlings in an electric 82-76 win over Michigan.

The experiment with also holding Division II and III championships in town with the Final Four were well-received, concerts at Centennial Olympic Park were packed and the weather was even nice.

Not bad for a football town.

“We were absolutely thrilled with the way things went here in Atlanta,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president for men’s basketball championships. “We were fortunate to have such great games on top of it. I couldn’t be happier.”

Louisville, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, went wire-to-wire as favorites, but still managed to capture people’s hearts like a Cinderella story.

The Cardinals came back from 12 points down against both Wichita State on Saturday and Michigan on Monday night, while putting little-known George Mason-transfer Luke Hancock into the limelight. Sporting a thick tournament beard, Hancock poured in 42 points in two games to become the first bench player to win the Most Outstanding Player award.

Good things were happening to good people. Just a week earlier during Louisville’s regional-final win over Duke, a national TV audience watched Hancock kneel at teammate Kevin Ware’s side to pray for him, while other teammates were still in tears and recoiling over Ware’s horrific broken leg.

Late Monday night, Hancock walked from one interview to the next holding the NCAA Championship trophy. And Ware was wearing a net around his neck. Dome officials had lowered the goal to let the former Rockdale County standout snip off the last few pieces.

A bank of cameras documented every move of the tournament’s biggest fascination. In a week’s time, Ware went from victim to life of the NCAA party.

“Before the surgery the last thing I knew was they were up four, and I woke up the next morning with the (regional) trophy by my bedside,” Ware said. “That just meant everything to me. Now we’re national champions. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

He planned to put the net in his room at Louisville after he let his new pit-bull puppy play with it. The dog’s name? Scar — further evidence of how Ware embraced an otherwise bleak situation.

Ware was a bigger celebrity in the Dome on Monday night than actors Steve Carell, Jason Sudeikis or Paul Rudd, model Kate Upton and all five of Michigan’s “Fab Five.”

The weekend was about the basketball players, even those from the Division II and III finalists who were recognized on the court during Saturday’s semifinal games — before they played Sunday.

The Division II championship at Philips Arena between Drury and Metro State drew 7,763 fans, the largest crowd for a Division II championship since 1971. Amherst defeated Mary Hardin-Baylor in front of 6,284 fans in III, which was double even the seating capacity of the Salem, Va. Civic Center, where it had been since 1996.

The NCAA plans to gather feedback from coaches before deciding whether to hold it at future Final Four cites, knowing not every host city has two arenas so conveniently located. But so far, the feedback has been good.

“If you asked the teams that were here, they’d say, ‘Let’s do it again and keep doing it,’” said Mike Bobinski, Georgia Tech athletic director and outgoing chairman of the Division I men’s basketball committee. “It was a big-time experience for them, which is really what it’s supposed to be.”

Another change for Atlanta was the new configuration, with the court in the center of the Georgia Dome, which allowed fans a view from any seat in the house. The response? Saturday’s semifinal games drew 75,350 fans, the fourth-largest crowd for a sporting event at the Dome, behind two SEC Championship games (2009, 2010) and the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Monday night’s crowd of 74,326 beat Detroit’s Ford Field record of 72,922 in 2009 as the largest ever for a final game. Both Bobinski and Gavitt called it the best atmosphere they’ve seen for a championship game, and they’ve been to 35 between them.

“It was deafening in there at times,” Gavitt said.

Two nationally known programs playing good basketball had a lot to do with it. It’s all part of what made the weekend work.

“It was three really good college basketball games,” Bobinski said. “All the talk all year long about basketball isn’t this or isn’t that. I’ll take one like that 10 times out of 10.”

Staff writer Ken Sugiura contributed to this article.

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