ARLINGTON, Texas — Kentucky’s youth finally got served.
Connecticut’s old guard changed the story.
The Huskies’ dynamic, veteran backcourt was too much for the Wildcats’ precocious teens, grinding out a wire-to-wire 60-54 victory in the NCAA championship game Monday night.
And in doing so, UConn is a champion for the fourth time in school history. With the victory, Connecticut remained a perfect 4 for 4 in title games.
UConn seniors Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey ended their careers as they began them — atop the college basketball world. The Huskies raised the hardware for the second time in four years.
It was a remarkable turnaround for the Huskies, who a year ago were banned from postseason play because of poor academics. They entered this tournament as an overlooked No. 7 seed. Six wins later, no one’s overlooking them anymore.
“I said in the beginning, 18 months ago, when we started this thing, ‘The last is going to be the first,’ ” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie. “We was last, and now we’re first. But we always did it together.”
Napier, the all-American who promised his mother he’d get his degree before leaving for the NBA, saw his loyalty rewarded. On Monday, he was the second coming of Kemba Walker, pouring in a game-high 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting. He was the obvious choice for Most Valuable Player.
Guard Ryan Boatright toughed out an ankle injury to pitch in 14. And forward Niels Giffey added 10.
“I’ve got a lot of heart,” Boatright said. “We gave up too much this year to give up on ankle sprain. This moment was too big.”
It was arguably too big for Kentucky, which became the first team since the 1992 Michigan Wolverines to start five freshmen. And like the Fab Five, they fell just short of the title.
Dooming Kentucky (29-11): its struggles at the line. The Wildcats made just 13 of 24 free-throws on the night — a haunting reprise of John Calipari’s past.
When he was in the title game with Memphis in 2008, the Tigers similarly struggled, and those empty trips kept Kansas in the game, which guard Mario Chalmers sent to overtime with a buzzer-beating three-pointer. The Jayhawks ultimately prevailed in overtime.
Connecticut (32-8) didn’t need the extra session. The Huskies took care of business down the stretch by doing the little things.
Lasan Kromah corralled an offensive rebound with less than two minutes remaining, allowing the Huskies to burn another half-minute off the clock off the clock. Minutes later, the game ended with Boatright scooping up a missed shot and dashing toward the Kentucky basket — and into history.
James Young was a lot like his Wildcats team as a whole. He scored 20 points but was inefficient in doing so, missing 8 of 13 shots. Julius Randle, likely headed to the NBA, scored 10 on 3-of-7 shooting.
Still, the game was played at a level worthy of the hype.
The supersized final had an elite guest list. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush sat together in Jerry Jones’ box. Darius Rucker sang the national anthem.
UConn alum and former Sonics guard Ray Allen was in the building, too. In all, a championship-game record 79,238 filled AT&T Stadium to the brim.
From the start, Connecticut was the quicker, more aggressive team and shot to a 30-15 lead two-thirds the way through the first half.
Kentucky, meanwhile, was out of sorts on offense and porous on defense. Needing a spark, Calipari switched to a 2-3 zone — with immediate results.
UConn would score just five points the rest of the half. And Kentucky began finding its touch from deep, getting a pair of three-pointers from both Young and Andrew Harrison. The late flurry cut the deficit to four at the break.
Napier poured in 15 first-half points for the Huskies, scoring on 6 of 11 shots. Young had 10 for the Wildcats at the break.
Neither team could do much on offense out of the locker room, missing 16 of their first 19 combined shots out of the break. And so, things stayed tight until UConn got hot and stretched the lead to nine.
|Connecticut won its fourth national title in men’s basketball, tying Duke for fifth-most in NCAA tournament history.|
|1999||Beat Duke 77-74|
|2004||Beat Ga. Tech 82-73|
|2011||Beat Butler 53-41|
|2014||Beat Kentucky 60-54|