Atlanta — This was the stage he'd sought. But this was not the way Trey Burke wanted to leave it.
Not early, when foul trouble sent Burke, Michigan's point guard and the consensus national player of the year, to the bench for the final 11 minutes of the first half, banished to a spectator's role.
And certainly not late, as the final seconds ticked off the clock Monday and Louisville's bench spilled onto the court in celebration, a few feet behind Burke.
He walked slowly — and solemnly — off the court, ducking his head as confetti fell from the rafters inside the Georgia Dome, where a record crowd of 74,326 had watched Louisville wrestle away a national championship from Michigan, 82-76, in a thrilling title game.
Had he just played his last game in a Michigan uniform? Probably so, though no one in a somber visitors' locker room wanted to think about the future in the immediate aftermath of this loss.
"I don't know," freshman forward Mitch McGary said, his eyes red and watery, like most of his teammates'. "But if he did, he played his heart out."
He did, without question. And that probably explained why it ached so afterward, as Burke tried to make sense of it all — the scene, the stakes, and even the satisfaction they'll all spend the coming days searching for after they get back to Ann Arbor.
"Right now, it's definitely hard to put into perspective," said Burke, who finished with a game-high 24 points in just 26 minutes, and probably a few bruises when he wakes up in the morning.
"Here in a couple days or in a week or two," he continued, his voice a bit distant, "we'll probably be able to look back on the season and see the type of success we've had. How far we made it, how we turned things around after Big Ten play. We'll be able to grasp it then. But right now, it's definitely disappointment."
For all the Wolverines, it certainly was. But particularly for Burke, this was a sweet ending that turned suddenly bitter.
The hardware was nice. But nothing beats the net. And Monday night, it was Louisville snipping souvenirs, while Burke and his teammates retreated behind closed doors for a pep talk and some tears.
This had to be tough to stomach. The questionable calls? Certainly. The missed opportunity? Definitely. A magical NCAA Tournament run was halted by a flurry of ball screens and rebounds and lost scrambles for loose balls, a bright-eyed, young Michigan team stymied by the nation's most tenacious bunch. Rick Pitino after the game called this Louisville team the toughest he'd ever coached, and he's had more than his share.
Louisville proved again Monday night just what relentless looks like on a basketball court.
But Burke did, too, and as he continually knifed toward the basket, and fell crashing to the court, "You could see how badly he wanted it," McGary said.
And watching it slip away, you could see the reality hitting Burke as much as anyone, from a clear rejection the refs didn't see to clear dejection that the sophomore point guard simply couldn't hide.
He'd completed a virtual sweep of the national player of the year awards over the weekend — hardly a day went by that he wasn't honored with another trophy while in Atlanta. And Michigan's floor leader, coming off a frustrating semifinal performance against Syracuse, wasted little time asserting himself Monday night.
This was what he'd come back for, after all.
A year ago today, Trey Burke held a press conference to announce — amid reports he'd decided to enter the NBA draft — that he was returning for another season in Ann Arbor.
"I just feel like we have some unfinished business to do," Burke said at the time. "With the recruits coming in and the returning players, I feel like we have a great chance at a national championship."
That seemed like wishful thinking to some. But they started talking about it as a team goal in August. And by January, there the Wolverines were, ranked No. 1 in the country.
And here they were Monday, taking the court fully confident they'd finish the job, none more so than Burke.
All about Albrecht
On the Wolverines' opening possession, he slashed through the lane and kissed a high floater off the glass over Louisville center Gorgui Dieng. Then he took a drop pass for a deep 3-pointer from Marietta. Then another layup in traffic. He'd scored seven points in 38 minutes against Syracuse. He scored seven in the first 2:39 of this title game.
He headed to the bench for a breather, then returned briefly before picking up his second foul and being forced to take a seat again.
But no worries, right? In Spike they trust.
And why shouldn't they by now? Freshman Spike Albrecht, Michigan's newest cult hero, came off the bench and provided a spark in each of the last four tournament games.
Monday night, though, it was more like powder keg in the first half.
It was Jon Horford, a redshirt sophomore forward, who first declared Albrecht the "most eligible bachelor" in Ann Arbor. He'd also helped his head coach learn the point guard's given name when he hosted him on his campus visit last spring.
"Coach Beilein didn't know," Horford said. "He thought his real name was Spike. I was like 'Coach, his parents didn't name him Spike.' So I had to ask him, 'What's your real name?'"
By halftime, what's-his-name was a household name all across the nation. Somebody even created a Wikipedia page for him, noting that he'd taken on Louisville for the national championship "by himself."
For awhile, it did seem that way. Albrecht drained all four of his 3-point attempts, took the ball hard to the hoop for two more buckets and led all scorers with 17 points, more than doubling his season high.
And yet Michigan, which led by 12 with 3:56 left in the half, headed to the locker room clinging to a one-point margin. A late run by Louisville shifted the momentum, and set the stage for a second-half onslaught that would simply overpower the Wolverines.
This was a terrific title game. Great shooting. Frenetic pace. Alley-oops at both ends. A raucous crowd. It's too bad the officiating couldn't rise to the occasion the way the players did, though. Missed calls were glaring at both ends, and poor ones were equally so.
But in the end, it was the Cardinals celebrating. And it was Michigan's floor leader exiting stage left, talking about the future.
"This team will definitely be back in this situation next year," Burke said, echoing those comments he'd made last April. "I'm not guaranteeing anything. But with the type of talent we have, I feel like this team is capable of making another run."
More than likely, though, they'll have to make that run without him. He said again Monday night that he's "not sure" whether he'll enter the draft, but it'd be a stunner if he didn't.
"I haven't made a decision," Burke said. "I'm not thinking about it, honestly."
He laughed, but it was not a happy laugh.
"I'm thinking about a loss," he finished. "And it hurts."
1964, ’78, ’86, ’90, ’94, ‘99
(Won in 1991, ’92, 2001, ’10)
1940, ’53. ’57. ’91, 2003, ‘12
(Won in 1952, ’88, 2008)
1965, ’76, ’92, ’93, 2013
(Won in 1989)