A year after an academic ban prevented them from playing in the postseason, UConn won its fourth the national championship in 16 seasons. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
ARLINGTON, Texas – Shortly after Connecticut secured its fourth national championship on Monday night, indefatigable star guard Shabazz Napier could be found standing on the platform's edge and shouting in delight at the faithful who traveled here for the end of an improbable journey. Eventually, the senior star climbed a dais and took a microphone and asked for everyone's ears, and he then delivered his message to a cavernous arena and a worldwide audience. "This is what happens when you ban us," Napier shouted, holding forth by not holding back on graduation rate penalties that left the program without a postseason to play in a year ago.
If it was brash, it was nevertheless from the heart, which made it only appropriate for this month and this run and this night. "I just wanted to grab everyone's attention and introduce the hungry Huskies, because it's been two years," Napier said. "We worked so hard for this. We didn't want to lose it. So here we go, celebrating."In a football palace, the Huskies claimed the spot atop the college basketball world for 2014 by grinding down Kentucky with a 60-54 win. UConn completed its quick and triumphant turnaround from national champions in 2011 to a team that was banned from the NCAAs last season to champs again this year. The Huskies, which finished the regular season with a 33-point loss a month ago, ended the year dancing and twirling title T-shirts above their heads. A record crowd of 79,238 saw an improbable UConn squad led by a pair of willful guards and a second-year coach who made the program his own this April become the first No. 7 seed ever to win the NCAA tournament.
"It started 18 months ago when they kept believing and they stayed loyal to the program," head coach Kevin Ollie said. "It's a wonderful feeling to hold that trophy up and do it the right way. I think we did it the right way for 18 months, and we did it the right way in this NCAA tournament."
They did it behind Napier's game-high 22 points, which cemented his Most Outstanding Player award. They did it behind Ryan Boatright, who added 14 points and played ravenous defense that unsettled another backcourt despite suffering an ankle sprain with nine minutes to play. And they did it by doing to Kentucky what no team in this tournament had: by pulling away late while the Wildcats wilted.
Kentucky, the nation's preseason No. 1 team, had overcome an unexpectedly poor regular season and made it to this game with four straight victories over higher-seeded opponents. The last three were sealed by last-minute shots by freshman shooting guard Aaron Harrison, but this time there was no chance for another thrilling finish. The Wildcats were within one point with eight minutes to go but scored just seven more the rest of the way, recording just two field goals in the final six and a half minutes and never getting closer than four points in the final minute. After the Huskies extended their lead to six points with 25 seconds left, Aaron and his twin brother Andrew each missed three-pointers for Kentucky. Boatright ripped down the final rebound and literally ran off with a title.
"Making this run proved a lot," Aaron Harrison said. "But we didn't finish the job."
Neither side was supposed to be here this year – UConn was a No. 7 seed and Kentucky a No. 8 – and neither side was here at all a year ago. Poor graduation scores earned the Huskies a postseason ban. The Wildcats, meanwhile, lost in the first round of the NIT. It was the first NCAA tournament final since 1966 featuring two teams that did not play in the previous year's tournament. There was redemption for both teams in reaching the title game, but validation for only one on Monday night.
Indeed, this title caps an amazing few years for Connecticut. Conference realignment thrust UConn, once a signpost program in the Big East, into the American Athletic Conference. The pugnacious old coach, Jim Calhoun, took one step out of the spotlight and away from the bench. The new coach, Ollie, started last season with a seven-month contract, an eroded roster and NCAA-levied penalties for those low Academic Progress Rate scores. UConn's future was uncertain. The Huskies went a respectable 20-10 in 2012-13 and entered this year's tournament at 26-8. Then Napier did what former teammate Kemba Walker had done three years earlier, and carried his team through six tournament games to a trophy. The team that was left behind last March could not be chased down this March.
The journey and the win were especially meaningful for Napier and Ollie. “I never had a father in my life, and like I always said, I feel like he was always a father figure to me,” Napier said of Ollie. Now 41 and just four years removed from his NBA playing career, Ollie is permanently removed from the shadow of Calhoun, his mentor who won three titles at UConn. Napier, meanwhile, seals his legacy as an All-America whose career is bookended by national championships.
He also entered the pantheon of Connecticut legends, several of whom gathered in the champions' locker room after the game: Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton stood among the current crew and celebrated, while the former coach assessed Napier's place in the program's history. "When you talk Ray, when you talk about Emeka (Okafor), Kemba and now Shabazz Napier, you talk about greatness," Calhoun said.
The strong play by Napier and Boatright early in Monday's game was part of a familiar script that also saw Kentucky plunge headlong into another first-half hole. UConn's backcourt was aggravating on the defensive end; in the first nine minutes, the Wildcats' Harrison twins posted more turnovers (three) than they'd committed in the entire national semifinal against Wisconsin. With its starting guards neutralized, Kentucky missed 12 of its first 17 shots.
Connecticut pounced, using an early 11-2 run that was capped by a breathtaking Boatright stop-and-redirect-to-the-baseline move for a 17-8 lead that prompted UK head coach John Calipari to call a timeout. Napier then took over, with a three-pointer and a fast-break layup helping boost the lead to 30-15 with six minutes left in the half. The Wildcats therefore had Connecticut right where they wanted it.
Trailing by nine points or more for the fourth straight tournament game, Kentucky surged back, with two three-pointers from James Young and one from Andrew Harrison sparking what became a 16-5 run to finish the first half. But finally getting some offense wasn't the most significant change for the Wildcats: After a timeout with five minutes to go in the half, Calipari called for his team to go into a zone defense, which it ran on only five percent of its possessions during the season. Although Napier drained a three-pointer over it, the Wildcats stayed with the look and it stymied the Huskies until intermission. Starters DeAndre Daniels and Boatright were also on the bench for the final four-plus minutes of the half with two fouls apiece, and no one else but Napier scored over the last 4:48 for UConn, which led by just 35-31 at the break.
"The only thing that slowed them down is us going into a zone," said Calipari. "I don't usually do that. I said we got no choice or we're going to be down 20."
Connecticut's 1-for-11 start to the second half seemingly set the stage for Kentucky's standard second-half run. But the Wildcats scored just two field goals in the first eight minutes, and the Huskies stretched the lead back to 48-39 on a jumper by Napier. A monstrous and-one dunk by Young over Connecticut's 7-foot Amida Brimah began Kentucky's next charge, an 8-0 burst that pulled them within one at 48-47. During that stretch, Boatright tweaked his ankle, but the junior guard stayed in the game.
Connecticut's counterpunch came in the form of three-pointers by Napier and Niels Giffey and a jumper from Boatright. Missed free throws by Kentucky blended in to give UConn a six-point lead with four minutes to play. Kentucky couldn't come back this time, and the Wildcats never even had a chance to conjure more late-game sorcery.
When the buzzer sounded and the confetti and streamers blasted on to the court, the Huskies ran all over and piled upon each other in delight. "I hope that's one of the things that our story that we wrote really tells (people), and hopefully they can learn a lesson from that – that it really can work out if you stay with one program for four years," Giffey said. "We don't have all these guys going to the NBA, and we were never too worried about that stuff that was coming after the season. It was more important for us to win this game, to go out and bring this program back on top. That's nothing against the Kentucky guys They're all great kids and they will have amazing careers. It was just something deep, deep in our hearts that we really wanted to win this game."
The Huskies said they knew it all along, but they can at least claim they knew it since Jan. 18. On that night, Louisville visited Gampel Pavilion and beat Connecticut by 12, dropping the Huskies to 3-3 early in American Athletic Conference play. In the locker room afterward, just as he did Monday -- though in a much, much smaller venue -- Napier surveyed a crowd and asked for its attention. He told his teammates to hold their heads up. "At the end of the day, I said, we're going to be the team that's going to be holding up that trophy," Napier said. "I promise you that."
On the dais Monday night, as they raised that trophy and the ladders were set beneath the nets that were ripe for the cutting, Napier turned to his crew again. He asked if they remembered what he told them after that Louisville game two and a half months earlier. And they remembered: He told them they'd end up right where they were.
"I was like, man, I don't lie," Napier said. "We're the best team in the country. It's not the Shabazz show. It's the University of Connecticut Huskies. We went out there and proved that."
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