In an enthralling national championship battle, point guard Shabazz Napier provided a clutch performance, scoring 22 points and adding six rebounds and three assists to lead the UConn Huskies’ tight win over the Kentucky Wildcats, 60-54, on Monday night in front of a record 79,238 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The title represents UConn’s fourth in the past 15 years, and the first since 2011. Napier, who was a freshman on the 2011 team, was named the Most Outstanding Player. The senior helped boost the Huskies in the first half with 15 points and by controlling the tempo with backcourt mate Ryan Boatright, who finished with 14 points.
Napier’s strong first-half effort was crucial, as the Huskies would never trail. UConn needed to hold off several ominous Kentucky runs en route to the championship. The Huskies built a 30-15 lead, but the Wildcats would cut the lead to one point just after halftime, 35-34.
Kentucky found a way to keep the game competitive in a defensive battle. The Wildcats received a strong effort from James Young, who excited the crowd in the second half with left-handed dunk in traffic and despite a foul by Amida Brimah. Young would convert the subsequent free throw and make three more in the next two minutes to help Kentucky cut UConn’s lead, 48-47. Young, one of Kentucky’s five prolific freshmen, would finish with 20 points, 10 more than the next highest Wildcat scorer, Julius Randle.
Kentucky seemed to run out of steam, scoring just five points in the final five minutes. They also lost the free-throw battle. UConn converted all 10 of their free throws, while Kentucky shot just 13-24 from the line.
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"We had our chances to win," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "We're missing shots, we're missing free throws. We just didn't have enough."
Calipari cited how the freshmen were winded and were out-hustled by UConn.
“Every 50/50 ball they got. They just had more energy,” he said.
The Huskies overcame poor shooting to start the second half by using a team effort to knock down key shots in the final minutes. Napier and Niels Giffey hit consecutive three-point shots inside the final seven minutes, while Boatright followed by hitting a jumper to give UConn a six-point advantage. DeAndre Daniels would convert a layup off an assist from Napier with 2:47 remaining, and Lasan Kromah hit both free throws with 25 second left to close out the Wildcats.
“It’s just a wonderful feeling to do it the right way,” said UConn head coach Kevin Ollie.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us, last year, two years, we worked so hard for it, two years,” said Napier, referencing UConn’s ban from the postseason in 2013.
It was an unlikely tournament run for two perennial college basketball powers. UConn and Kentucky have now won the national championship in three of the past four years, but many experts expected both squads to miss out on the Elite Eight, let alone reach the title game.
Known for his poise and intelligence as a Huskies point guard in the 1990s, Ollie’s journey to the national championship as a coach began after a professional playing career that included a stint in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association with the Connecticut Pride, followed by a 14-year journeyman career with 12 NBA teams.
After retiring from the NBA in 2010, Ollie would accept an assistant position at UConn to work under Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, who had been head coach since 1986. Calhoun, a blue-collar Massachusetts native, was a giant presence in New England due to a coaching career that included 14 years at Northeastern University in Boston before moving on to UConn.
After just two years as an assistant, Ollie was named the head coach in 2012 after Calhoun’s retirement. With major shoes to fill and limited experience, there were some questions surrounding Ollie’s ability to keep UConn an elite power after Calhoun’s impressive reign of three titles and nine trips to the Elite Eight.
In his first season as head coach, Ollie would lead the Huskies to a respectable 20-10 record, but ended with four losses in their final seven games, and an eighth-place finish in the Big East. The Huskies were ineligible for the 2013 postseason due to an NCAA ban for poor academic performance.
In 2013-2014, Ollie was in the second season of his five-year contract, and with a great deal to prove. Much like in 2012, the freshman class of 2013 lacked superstar talent, so the main contributors to their title run were recruits from the Calhoun Era.
But Ollie was able to cultivate players like Napier, who emerged as a leader this season. Experts also credited Ollie for being both a player’s coach and a disciplinarian at the same time. The 41-year-old earned praise from his colleagues for his demeanor and attitude, and for getting the most out of his players.
“I hate losing, but I am happy he won,” said Calipari of Ollie.
An Improbable Tournament Run?
The Wildcats were the 2013-2014 preseason No.1 team, but dropped out of the rankings in Week 19. There was a stretch in which Kentucky lost four-of-seven games and many expected the growing pains to persist into mid-March.
Despite some difficulties in the regular season, the Wildcats were particularly impressive in the tournament. Kentucky began with a win over No. 9 seed Kansas State, and followed that up with wins over then-undefeated Wichita State, and rival and defending champion Louisville. Kentucky managed to squeak by No. 2 seeds Michigan and Wisconsin behind three-point shots from Aaron Harrison in the dying moments of each game.
It seemed as though Kentucky was grossly underestimated because of their five freshmen. Experts are often prone to overlook teams with underclassmen, and some of Kentucky’s early season struggles may have overshadowed how the Wildcats entered the tournament with three consecutive strong performances.
Randle, Young, the Harrison Twins (Aaron and Andrew), and Dakari Johnson seemed to get better as the season progressed. The Wildcats proved that they were capable of hitting big shots and limit their mistakes. Against Wisconsin, the Wildcats turned the ball over just four times.
But much like Michigan’s “Fab Five” from the early 1990s, Kentucky’s five star freshmen came up short in the title game. The quintet of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson may have had more flash and swagger than Kentucky’s group, but the Wildcats proved a great number of people wrong in their fantastic run to the final.
After being blown out by Duke in 1992, Michigan’s players would return for their sophomore years for another run in which they would lose a tight battle to North Carolina. Calipari’s frosh group are not expected to return in full in 2014-2015.
“I think all these kids are coming back, so we should be good,” he said with sarcasm.
There was even talk that Calipari might bolt from Lexington. Former Kentucky star Rex Chapman posted on Twitter that Calipari could return to the NBA as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
"The Lakers have a basketball coach. Kentucky has a basketball coach. I got the best job in the country. I'm not going to even dignify that stuff," Calipari said.