FINALS WATCH: ‘Russdiculous,’ Michael Jordan

ATLANTA (AP) — Around the Final Four and its host city with journalists from The Associated Press bringing the flavor and details of everything surrounding the games.

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BIG FANS

Russ Smith has a reputation for being a little, shall we say, out there. This, after all, is the player whose nickname is “Russdiculous.” He’s never met a shot he didn’t like, and his antics drove coach Rick Pitino to distraction his first year at Louisville.

And that exuberance isn’t limited to the court.

Pitino was talking Sunday about the passion his players have for the other sports at Louisville. After mentioning that Gorgui Dieng goes to every women’s game, Pitino said Smith had been something of a super fan for a women’s soccer game.

“Russ Smith took off all his clothes — except his underpants, of course — and painted his body red for a women’s soccer game in the cold,” Pitino said.

Smith was quite proud to confirm Pitino’s story, nodding his head and giving a big thumbs up.

“Now you know what I’m coaching,” Pitino said, smiling.

— Nancy Armour — http://twitter.com/@nrarmour

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DIVISION II CHAMPIONSHIP

The guys from Division II have next.

And Drury will be playing for its first Division II national championship when the Panthers play Metro State in Sunday’s final.

Drury carries a 22-game winning streak into the final. The game is being played at Philips Arena, which sits near the Georgia Dome, home of the Final Four. The Division II follows the Division III championship game; Amherst beat Mary Hardin-Baylor 87-70 to win that title.

Drury, from Springfield, Mo., is sending five busloads of students to Atlanta.

Metro State is no newcomer to the national championship scene. The school from Denver won national titles in 2000 and 2002 under Mike Dunlap, now the Charlotte Bobcats’ coach. Metro State now is coached by Derrick Clark, who was an assistant on Dunlap’s staff.

— Charles Odum — http://twitter.com/@CharlesOdum

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DIVISION III CHAMPS

The Amherst Lord Jeffs have won their second Division III men’s basketball national championship, defeating Mary Hardin-Baylor 87-70 at Phillips Arena.

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LORD JEFFS

Wolverines? Cardinals?

Boooring.

There’s no better nickname in Atlanta than the one sported by Amherst, which is playing in the Division III championship game at Philips Arena. Ladies and gentlemen, the Lord Jeffs.

The school and its namesake town in Massachusetts were named after Lord Jeffery Amherst, a famed officer in the British Army during the 1700s. Hence, the unique moniker for the college’s athletic teams.

— Paul Newberry — http://twitter.com/@pnewberry1963

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SUPER BOWL, REDUX

It was somewhat of a Super Bowl redux at the Division III championship game.

Amherst and Mary Hardin-Baylor were just starting the second half Sunday when a bank of lights inside Philips Arena went dark. There were enough lights still on that officials didn’t immediately halt the game, but they huddled at the scorer’s table during the first dead ball.

The officials met with coaches from both teams and decided to play on, even though the lights hadn’t come back on. It was still bright enough to continue with the game.

Amherst led 46-39 when the lights went out.

— Dave Skretta — http://twitter.com/@APdaveskretta

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NOT SINCE MICHAEL JORDAN

It has been 31 years since we’ve seen a national semifinals like we witnessed Saturday night.

The last time all three Final Four games were decided by five points or fewer was 1982. On Saturday, Louisville rallied to beat Wichita State 72-68 and Michigan held on to beat Syracuse 61-56.

It was a welcome change for anyone bored by those three regional finals last weekend that ended in blowouts.

The last time both games where that close North Carolina beat Houston 68-63 in one semifinal, and Georgetown edged Louisville 50-46 in the other. Then the Tar Heels won the title 63-62 on Michael Jordan’s jumper.

— Noah Trister — http://twitter.com/@noahtrister

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O’CONNELL: 35 YEARS

Covering his 35th Final Four, AP Basketball Writer Jim O’Connell was honored by the NCAA and the Final Four coaches Saturday in Atlanta.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino presented the man many call “Oc” with a basketball signed by the Final Four coaching brethren: Pitino, Jim Boeheim, John Beilein and Gregg Marshall.

“Jimmy. The Best,” was the message Boeheim wrote.

Reporters gave O’Connell a standing ovation at the ceremony, held during Sunday’s interview sessions to preview the national title game.

A pretty cool moment for our veteran, who began his run at the 1979 Final Four. You may remember 1979 as the year Larry Bird faced off with Magic Johnson.

On Monday, the 35th anniversary of that classic game, Louisville plays Michigan and O’Connell will be at his normal station, on press row, breaking it down the way only he can.

—Eddie Pells — http://twitter.com/@epells

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UNBEATEN LOUSIVILLE

Louisville will be playing for its third national championship on Monday night.

The Cardinals are 2-0 in championship games, beating UCLA in 1980 and Duke in 1996. Coach Rick Pitino’s team will take a 15-game winning streak into the final. It is Louisville’s longest streak since the 2003-04 season.

The last team to beat the Cardinals was Notre Dame, in overtime, on Feb. 9.

But Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng said Sunday that going 3-0 will depend on how effective Louisville’s press is against Michigan.

“We could not win without our pressure,” Dieng said.

Louisville’s come-from-behind 72-68 semifinal victory was its 34th of the season, a school record for wins.

— Charles Odum

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AMHERST IN CONTROL

It took Amherst about 3 minutes to seize control of the Division III title game.

The Lord Jeffs scored the first 10 points, and while Mary Hardin-Baylor never allowed them to stretch that lead much, the Crusaders never managed to trim into it, either.

Amherst has had to play most of the first half without national player of the year Aaron Toomey, who picked up two fouls and earned a seat on the bench next to coach David Hixon.

Amherst led 38-30 at the break.

The highlight, though, belonged to the Crusaders, who picked up a loose ball and passed it ahead to swingman Thomas Orr, who left the entire goal rattling after a thunderous dunk.

— Dave Skretta

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LONE STAR PRIDE

Mary Hardin-Baylor is carrying the weight of Texas on its shoulders.

The Crusaders became the first program from the Lone Star State to appear in the Division III national championship when it faced Amherst on Sunday.

Not only that, the Crusaders are doing it in a year in which none of the Division I schools from the state so much as managed to make the NCAA tournament. The closest was Baylor, which was left off the bubble on Selection Sunday and then ran roughshod through the NIT tournament.

Metropolitan State, which will play Drury for the Division II title, knocked out San Antonio-based St. Mary’s University earlier in the tournament. That left Mary Hardin-Baylor, based in Belton, Texas, as the pride of the state this season.

— Dave Skretta

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KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed will lead up to 3,000 kids who will dribble basketballs on a one-mile trek through downtown Atlanta on Sunday.

Those taking part in the Final Four Dribble will make their down Andrew Young International Boulevard through the heart of events that are part of the national semifinals.

They picked a great day — it’s sunny, 70-degrees in Atlanta once again.

— Charles Odum

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CRISP BASKETBALL

Fans of college basketball who’ve grown weary of the wrestling matches that take place in Division I hoops these days ought to make their way to small-college games.

Amherst and Mary Hardin-Baylor are playing in the Division III championship on Sunday, and there wasn’t a single whistle blown — not for a foul, a turnover or even for a ball that went out of bounds — for nearly five minutes at the start of the game.

Just crisp screens, solid defense, good shooting and a nice tempo.

The way basketball used to be played.

— Dave Skretta

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LITTLE GUYS, BIG STAGE

Louisville and Michigan fans aren’t the only ones left partying in Atlanta.

It’s time for the Division II and Division III national championship games. He will be played Sunday at Philips Arena, a short walk from where those two will play for the Division I title Monday night.

First up is Amherst takes on Mary Hardin-Baylor in the D-3 title game, followed by Drury and Metropolitan State for the D-2 title. The games are being played as part of Final Four weekend for the first time as the NCAA celebrates its 75th anniversary.

And while they may not be as numerous, fans of all four schools are just as vocal.

There was a contingent of about a dozen students who drove from Texas to root on Mary-Hardin Baylor, and they made quite a racket a couple hours before tip as they marched toward the arena dressed in everything from a garish golden toga to a snazzy purple bodysuit.

When one curmudgeon shot them a “keep it quiet” glance, one of the students replied cheerily, “I didn’t drive 16 hours not to yell!”

— Dave Skretta

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NCAA Finals Watch follows the Final Four games and all the activities surrounding the event as seen by journalists from The Associated Press from across Atlanta. It will be updated throughout the day with breaking news and other items of interest. Follow AP reporters on Twitter where available.

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