Mark Story: It was Randle's season but not his night

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 8, 2014 

ARLINGTON, Texas — From the time it was announced that the Final Four was coming to metropolitan Dallas, Julius Randle started dreaming of what it would be like to win the national championship in his hometown.

This, even though the-then Dallas high school star had yet to pick a college.

On Monday night, before the largest crowd ever to see a men's NCAA Tournament championship game — a crowd that included former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — Randle had a chance to compose the ultimate Hollywood homecoming.

Unfortunately for Randle, the script got badly flipped.

With Kentucky's freshman star battling cramps — according to the CBS broadcast — and a fierce Connecticut defense, UK saw its magical run through the 2014 NCAA tourney end with a 60-54 loss to the Huskies. There was no last-second magic for Aaron Harrison and the Wildcats this time. UK struggled from the foul line (13-for-24) and, surprisingly, was outrebounded 34-33 by the Huskies.

"Even in that loss, I can't tell you how proud (I am)," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "I can't believe what these kids got done. ... Their guard play was outstanding. But we had our chances. That's all you can ask for."

The defeat ended UK's 11-game NCAA Tournament winning streak — which began after a 56-55 Final Four loss to UConn in 2011 — and denied Calipari a second national championship in three seasons. It also made UConn 4-0 in national title games, all since 1999.

For Randle, the final numbers were 10 points and six rebounds. He took just seven shots.

"The (number of) shots didn't matter," a dejected Randle said afterward. "When I was penetrating, guys were open on the wing, and that's my job to get them shots if (defenders) sag in. I don't care about shots."

For Randle, there was one uplifting pregame moment. When CBS announcer Jim Nantz did the starting lineups over the AT&T Stadium public address system, he dropped heavy emphasis on the "from Dallas, Texas" part of Randle's introduction.

The crowd roared.

Otherwise, things seemed a bit off almost from the start for Randle. In pre-game warm-ups, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman seemed to be doing more stretching than shooting. Not even three full minutes into the game, Calipari sent Alex Poythress in for Randle.

"He's a freshman and he was anxious," Calipari said afterward in explaining the early substitution. "That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people, and he got a little winded. He's a freshman."

Asked by a reporter after the game whether he had been injured Randle said, "No, I was fine."

Randle put together a flurry of back-to-back buckets in the last two minutes of the first half to help the Cats cut what had been a 15-point Huskies lead (30-15) to 35-31 at halftime.

"When we got it down to four, I really thought we were going to win," Calipari said.

But this time, there was no second-half magic for Kentucky.

A couple of plays after halftime signified Randle's night. At one point, trying to pass out of a double-team to the wing, he zoomed the ball so high that LeBron James on a trampoline could not have jumped high enough to get it.

With 2:24 left and UK down 58-52, Randle squared up in the lane on 6-7 UConn forward Niels Giffey. Even against the smaller defender, he was not able to score.

The disappointment of being so close to Kentucky's ninth NCAA title will linger, of course. But after a wild roller coaster of a season, Randle and his freshman teammates took Kentucky fans on a thrill ride to remember.

In the Calipari one-and-done era of UK basketball, Randle deserves to be remembered as one of the best of the best. His 24 double-doubles on the season attest to that.

However, the Hollywood homecoming that was achingly close, Julius Randle leading Kentucky to the national title in his hometown in front of friends and family, that got away in a most agonizing manner.

Said Randle: "I just hate that it ended like this."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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