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Luke Hancock, not Kevin Ware, was most touching story from Final Four

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ATLANTA — With all due respect to Kevin Ware, he was not most heart-warming story from this Final Four.

And don’t get me wrong here. What he went through — and the way that his Louisville teammates responded — was incredible. The horrific injury, the tears on the court, the message of inspiration from a college kid whose leg had, quite literally, snapped in half on the court was nothing short of amazing.

But when it’s all said and done, Ware is going to be fine. We’ll see him play basketball again, maybe as early as the start of next season.

Luke Hancock’s dad may never have the pleasure of seeing him play basketball again. He’s sick. The family did not want to disclose his illness, but it’s bad enough that Hancock’s father almost couldn’t make it to Georgia.

He did, and what he saw was straight out of a dream. Hancock scored 20 points on Saturday night, including 13 in the final 12 minutes, as he made every big play down the stretch to lead a comeback against Wichita State to reach the title game. That alone was the kind of performance that would make Hancock a tournament legend and a hero in Louisville for the rest of his life. He’ll never sit down at a bar in that city and have to pay for his own beer.

What made the performance all the better was that Hancock isn’t a highly-touted recruit. He’s not an all-american and he didn’t have blue-bloods beating down his door while he was in high school. Before he went to Hargrave Military Academy for a prep year, he didn’t have a single scholarship offer. He wound up playing for George Mason for two seasons, but ended up transferring to Louisville — where his former prep school coach is an assistant on Rick Pitino’s staff — when Jim Larranaga headed south to Miami.

Hancock is Louisville’s sixth-man, the veteran leader and the strongest presence in the locker room. He’s a guy that has spent the entire season dealing with the painful recovery that comes with major shoulder surgery. He averaged 7.7 points on the season. He’s anything but a star on a team that includes Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan.

But Saturday night wasn’t even Hancock’s best performance of the Final Four.

On Monday, Hancock once again led the Cardinals with 22 points, but it was a two minute stretch late in the first half that firmly entrenched his position in March Madness lore.

After Spike Albrecht put on a show, scoring 17 first half points while Trey Burke was buried on the bench with two fouls, Hancock single-handedly led the Cardinals back. He hit one three. Then another. Then two more, each one deeper than the last. By the time the halftime buzzer had sounded, Louisville had cut the Michigan lead to just 38-37. Without that flurry of long-range bombs, Louisville wouldn’t be leaving the Georgia Dome with a ring.

For his troubles, Hancock was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player, the first player to win that award while coming off the bench.

And he did it all in front of his father.

“It’s been a long road,” Hancock said. “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 he was here.”

“I always look at him after games and ask him: ‘How was that?'” Hancock added. “And he just smiled and said, ‘It was great.'”

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.