Sunday April 3rd, 2011

HOUSTON -- As officials huddled late Saturday to determine how many ticks should remain on the clock when Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier stepped to the free-throw line, Napier scanned the crowd. He sought his mother, Carmen Velasquez. Napier found her, but seeing his favorite member of the NCAA Tournament-record crowd of 75,421 didn't offer much reassurance.

"She was scared," the 6-foot freshman said. "I was kind of nervous myself."

Napier needed to make the front end of the one-and-one. UConn led by two, and Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins had just missed a three-pointer that probably would have sent the Wildcats to Monday's national title game against Butler. Napier had grabbed the rebound and gotten fouled with 2.0 seconds remaining. The 76.1 percent free-throw shooter could ice the victory if his nerves didn't cripple him.

So Napier looked at Velasquez and accepted good-luck wishes from his teammates. Fortunately for Napier, coach Jim Calhoun had taken forward Alex Oriakhi out of the game with 16 seconds remaining. Though Oriakhi swears he has never told Napier a joke as he prepared to shoot a free throw, Oriakhi's foul-line manner has an unintended, undesired effect on Napier. "It just makes me laugh," Napier said. "At that time, you don't want to laugh. You want to be serious."

With Oriakhi safely on the bench, Napier drained both free throws. Kentucky's Brandon Knight hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to make the final score 56-55, but the shot would have impacted only a sucker gambler who had the Vegas-underdog Huskies giving two points. UConn punched its ticket when Napier's second free throw passed through the net.

Connecticut wasn't supposed to win this way. Junior Kemba Walker was supposed to shoot the Huskies past John Calipari's Team One-and-Done. Instead, freshman Jeremy Lamb contested the critical shot and the freshman Napier put away the win. Meanwhile, Kentucky junior Liggins -- not one of the Wildcats' three potentially NBA-bound freshman starters -- launched the ill-advised, ill-fated three-point attempt with six seconds left.

But in an NCAA tournament where nothing has followed the accepted script, should we have expected anything different? On Saturday, the two mid-majors (Butler and Virginia Commonwealth) played a beautiful game. The two name-brand programs played an ugly one. We knew when the Final Four was set that we'd get a David-and-Goliath final game, but who knew Butler would exit Saturday looking like Goliath?

UConn and Kentucky shouldn't fret too much over the ugliness. Given the track record of Calipari's previous Final Four teams and the revelations this week from former Connecticut recruit Nate Miles in The New York Times, it's possible the NCAA may someday rule the game was never officially played.

That will provide no solace for Liggins, the lengthy guard who smothered UConn's Walker unlike anyone else has in the tournament. Liggins held Walker to 18 points, tying his low during the Huskies' 10-game postseason win streak. Liggins, whose three-pointer sealed Kentucky's Elite Eight win against North Carolina, also made two plays late Saturday that helped the Wildcats in the short run -- and destroyed them in the long run.

Liggins stole the ball from Walker and drilled a three-pointer to slash UConn's lead to three with 1:37 remaining. That gave Liggins the confidence he could make a three. With 50 seconds remaining, Liggins gave Lamb a head fake outside the three-point line and rose into Lamb while standing on the line. The move drew a foul, and it gave Liggins the idea that he could once again rise from distance and goad Lamb into another foul.

In the Kentucky huddle during a timeout with 16 seconds left, Calipari ordered Knight to look for an open man. The player Knight chose was free to create whatever shot would fit the situation. So when Liggins got the ball, he thought about the three he just made and the foul he had just drawn ... before rising to launch position. Unfortunately for Liggins, Lamb arrived late. Had the freshman tried to contest the shot a split-second sooner, Liggins might have had a chance to draw contact. Instead, Liggins found his vision obscured by the hand of UConn's longest guard.

"I should have drove it," a despondent Liggins said later.

Had anyone on the Kentucky bench considered another of Saturday's oddities, the Wildcats would have thought twice about firing up a three in that situation. From the 8:15 to 2:09 marks, there were no natural stoppages in play. No fouls. No balls out of bounds. Not even a kicked ball. After the coaches realized what was happening, each called a 30-second timeout during the stretch, but without those extended breaks that allow the "Napa Know-How" song to burrow into the skulls of viewers at home, the players' legs failed them. Their shots barely reached the rim. How exhausted was everyone on the court? Even Walker tugged at his shorts as Kentucky walked the ball up the floor on one possession.

"Oh my goodness, that was definitely a tough stretch," Oriakhi said. "I'm not going to lie. I was as tired as I've ever been. I looked at Kemba. He was tired. When Kemba Walker is tired, there's something wrong."

Something seemed wrong with Kentucky for much of the night. Players admitted afterward to being intimidated by the atmosphere at cavernous Reliant Stadium. That helped explain the 28.1 percent first-half shooting and 10-point halftime deficit. Even coming out of the locker room for the second half, the Wildcats seemed discombobulated. As they waited in the tunnel to take the floor, Kentucky players huddled. They joined hands in the center of the huddle, and senior forward Josh Harrellson counted to three. No one said a word. As players broke and trickled toward the court, Harrellson demanded: "Whoa. Whoa," Harrellson said. "Bring that [expletive] in here again." He counted to three once more, and this time as the huddle broke each player said brothers.

The family came together early in the second. The Wildcats made four of their first five three-pointers. The fourth, from Doron Lamb, gave Kentucky a two-point lead less than five minutes after it had trailed by 10. Walker stopped the bleeding for UConn with a jumper. On the Huskies' next possession, Walker drew a foul and made three free throws. Later, with his tank near empty, he found some reserve fuel and sped through the Wildcats for a layup putting the Huskies up four. Walker didn't dominate, but he did enough to keep UConn just ahead of Kentucky.

Walker's play -- plus Kentucky's 4-of-12 night from the free-throw line -- left the Wildcats in a spot where at the end they were forced to choose whether to shoot for the win or drive for the tie. When Liggins' shot missed and Napier made his free throws, Calipari knew.

"You fall off a cliff," Calipari said. "It's over."

After the tumble, Kentucky will move into offseason mode. Knight, Lamb, fellow freshman Terrence Jones (11 points, 17 rebounds) and Liggins will decide whether to turn pro. Four McDonald's All-Americans will arrive to form a new nucleus.

Meanwhile, UConn will keep playing. "We played one of our worst games of the season [Saturday]," Napier said. "Our next game should be one of our best."

One UConn player already has taken a lesson from Saturday's struggle that he hopes will pay off when the Huskies play for the title on Monday. "I try not to make [Napier] laugh," Oriakhi said. "I just try to encourage him to make it. But I'll leave him alone if he's going to keep hitting his free throws."

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