UConn beats Kentucky to win national title

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 7, 2014 

ARLINGTON, Texas — Kentucky's storybook run through this year's NCAA Tournament ultimately lacked one essential element: a happy ending.

A 60-54 loss to Connecticut Monday night deprived Kentucky of its ninth national championship. The Cats showed the resiliency that marked an inspiring and memorable — if improbable — post-season advancement highlighted by Aaron Harrison's winning three-pointers in the previous three games.

No magic this night of gritty resolve. But Kentucky gave its fans one more reason to admire what Coach John Calipari likes to call a will to win.

UK (29-11) never led. But UK never surrendered.

Rather than assign blame, Calipari suggested credit be given Connecticut.

"This was as much them, how they played," he said. "They were not going to let us take this game from them."

UK's 13-for-24 free-throw shooting proved impossible to overcome. But UConn, a seventh-seed which ultimately wore Cinderella's slipper this season, also won the game.

Guard Shabazz Napier, who earlier in the day received the Bob Cousy Award emblematic of the nation's best point guard, showed why. He scored 22 points, none bigger than a three-pointer with 6:53 left after Kentucky had methodically reduced a one-time 15-point deficit to a single point. He was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Backcourt mate Ryan Boatright chipped in 14 points for the Huskies, who finished the season with a 32-8 record.

UConn's signature defense, which ranked 13th nationally, was remarkably true to form. UK made 39.1 percent of its shots, just a tenth of a percentage poorer than what UConn opponents shot all season.

James Young, named to the All-Final Four team, led Kentucky with 20 points. He made eight of nine free throws. His teammates made only five of 15.

Julius Randle, the focus of UConn's defense, was the only other UK player to crack double figures. He took only seven shots and scored 10 points.

Aaron Harrison made only three of seven shots (one of five from three-point range) and finished with seven points. That equaled his lowest point total since getting seven on Senior Day against Alabama.

The loss denied the UK freshmen's bid to go one better than their celebrated predecessors, Michigan's Fab Five of two decades ago.

Still, only the most heartless of fans could be disappointed. Barely a month ago, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale had termed the Cats "a major disappointment."

But freed of the burden of expectation, which included pre-season talk of a 40-0 record, the Cats showed championship mettle to the end of the championship game.

Kentucky trailed 35-31 at halftime, which meant the Cats had not led at the break since the opening NCAA Tournament game against Kansas State.

But it could have been worse. Led by Napier, UConn led 30-15 with less than six minutes remaining in the first half.

"They're all freshmen," Calipari said in explaining UK's wobbly start. "They're scared to death again. We tried to settle them down, and we were rattled early."

Kentucky, which eschewed the three-point shot Saturday against Wisconsin, used it to hang in there with UConn. UK did not make a three-pointer until Young hit with 8:11 left.

The Cats made three of four in the final 5:30 of the first half.

Napier and Boatright combined for 23 of UConn's 35 first-half points. Napier led the way with 15. He hit three threes, and drove with knowledgeable purpose.

UConn needed a big half from Napier. Boatright played well, befuddling UK early with a hesitation move and included a spin away from the defender and a reverse layup. But fouls limited him to 12 minutes, while Napier did not leave the floor.

Kentucky's now-familiar knack for rallies took time to develop. Aaron Harrison, who hit the winning three-pointers in three straight games, did not make a shot from beyond the arc in the first half. He connected 14 seconds into the second half to bring the Cats within 35-34.

"I thought we were going to win the game," Calipari said.

But UConn resisted.

With UK's deficit at 41-39, Niels Giffey hit a three-pointer from the left corner. Two Boatright free throws and a pretty pull-up by Napier gave the Huskies a 48-39 lead with 11 minutes left.

Given Kentucky's resilience all season, surely no one expected a meek surrender.

Young drove to a dunk over 7-footer Amida Brimah. The resulting three-point play helped the Cats close to within 48-47.

Three-pointers by Napier and Giffey kept Kentucky behind (the Cats trailed for all but 76 seconds). Boatright's pull-up — the ball going through the net as the shot clock buzzed — made UConn's lead 56-50 with 4:11 left.

"I'm just extremely proud of everybody," Randle said in the subdued UK locker room. "How they fought this whole postseason. ... How we fought through everything.

"It's hard to fall one game short. We left it all out there."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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