A team that was banned from the postseason one year ago due to academic sanctions, the University of Connecticut Huskies defeated the University of Kentucky 60-54 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Doubted by many after longtime coach Jim Calhoun resigned because of health issues, UConn hired young, former 13-year veteran NBA backup alum, Kevin Ollie to be the new face of their program.
Behind the star-studded performance of senior guard Shabazz Napier, tenacious defense and conversion on free throws in critical situations, the Huskies proved to the world that anything is possible despite the odds that were against them.
“We came out here to play,” said Napier, who was voted most outstanding player of the Final Four. “We didn’t listen to any doubters.”
As a seventh seed, Connecticut was the highest seeded team to win the national championship since Rollie Massimino’s eighth-seeded Villanova squad did it in 1985. With the win, the Huskies won their fourth national title since 1999.
Meanwhile, with five highly-talented freshmen in the starting lineup, Kentucky (29-11) came into the championship game behind clutch performances from guard and twin Aaron Harrison, who converted on huge three-point shots in the last three games to put the Wildcats in a position to win another championship.
In the last five games, Kentucky trailed its opponent by at least nine points but found a way to persevere and win the game. However, Monday evening presented a different outcome.
Connecticut (32-8) held an early nine point lead and was able to increase its lead to 30-15 in the first half, giving Kentucky its largest deficit of the tournament, but the Wildcats fought back. Calipari switched to a zone defense, limiting the Huskies to only six points in the final six minutes of the half. The Wildcats they went on a 16-5 run to close the first half, cutting the deficit to 35-31.
The second half started much like a typical comeback or regroup by Kentucky, who set a fast-paced tone early in the half.
UConn, on the other hand, shot 1-for-10 to start the second half. With 10:50 left, the Huskies established a 48-39 cushion before the Wildcats scored the next eight points. Kentucky trimmed Connecticut’s lead to 48-47 with 8:13 remaining.
Then, in an attempt to take the lead, Aaron Harrison missed three pointer from the left corner that he has hit time and time again in the tournament, creating a turning point in the game. Kentucky was unable to get that close again.
With 6:50 remaining in the game, Napier hit a critical three pointer, decreasing the Wildcats momentum of making a comeback. From there, the Huskies defense played an important role in limiting the play of Kentucky’s twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison and withstanding another rally by the Wildcats.
“Me and Shabazz got a lot of heart. We’re tough,” said Ryan Boatright, who rolled his ankle late in the second half, but gritted it out. “We moved our feet and stayed in front of them.”
DeAndre Daniels converted on a hesitation move in the paint to increase UConn’s lead to 58-52 with 2:45 to play.
Although the Wildcats were trailing late in the game, Calipari did not let his players foul anyone from the Connecticut team, who shot a perfect 10-for-10 from the free-throw line on the night.
In the final 1:08, Kentucky converted on back-to-back three pointers by the twin guards. However, UConn’s ability to convert free throws allowed them to hold off the Wildcats to get the win.
“We couldn’t foul late,” Calipari said. “I know people are asking, ‘Why didn’t you foul?’ Because they’re not missing. Those guards never miss.”
Kentucky shot just 54 percent (13-for-24) from the free throw line which hurt their chances of making a comeback drastically.
Napier led all scorers for the Huskies with 22 points, followed by Boatright with 14. Despite the play from the twin guards, James Young finished with 20 points as the leading scorer for the Wildcats.
Ollie became the first coach to win a national title in his first NCAA tournament appearance since Steve Fisher in 1989. After separating from the Big East conference 15 months ago, the Huskies brought the American Athletic Conference a national title in its first year.
Despite all obstacles, Husky players believed in Ollie’s vision of dedication and hard work.
“You’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” Napier told the crowd and TV audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you ban us.”