ARLINGTON, Texas -- No conference wanted them. Several teammates and their coach left them. The NCAA kept them out for a year.
Connecticut won it all just the same.
Senior Shabazz Napier turned in another all-court masterpiece Monday night at AT&T Stadium to lift the Huskies to a 60-54 victory against Kentucky's freshmen-laden team and a national title hardly anyone saw coming.
Napier had 22 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists and was named the Final Four's most outstanding player. His partner in the defensive lock-down, Ryan Boatright, finished with 14 points.
Napier kneeled down and put his forehead to the court for a long while after the buzzer sounded. He was wiping back tears when he cut down the net.
"Honestly, I want to get everybody's attention right quick," Napier said. "You're looking at the hungry Huskies. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you banned us."
Yes, it is only a short year since the Huskies were barred from the Big East Conference tournament and March Madness because of problems with grades. That stoked a fire no one could put out this season.
The Huskies (32-8) never trailed in the final and led by as many as 15 in the first half before the Wildcats (29-11) trimmed the deficit to one with 8:13 left. But Aaron Harrison, Kentucky's big-moment shooter in the past three games, missed a 3-pointer from the left corner that would have given the Wildcats the lead. Kentucky never got closer.
One key difference in a six-point loss: Kentucky's 11 missed free throws -- a flashback of sorts for coach John Calipari, whose Memphis team blew a late lead against Kansas after missing multiple free throws in the 2008 final. The Wildcats went 13 for 24. The Huskies went 10 for 10, including Lasan Kromah's two to seal the game with 25.1 seconds left.
"We had our chances to win," Calipari said. "We're missing shots, we're missing free throws. We just didn't have enough."
In all, Kentucky, which started an all-freshmen lineup, was beaten by a more fundamentally sound, more-seasoned group that came into this tournament a seventh-seeded afterthought but walked away with the their fourth national title since 1999. They were the highest seed to win it all since Rollie Massimino's eighth-seeded Villanova team in 1985.
Napier and Boatright now go down with Kemba Walker, Emeka Okafor and all those other champs of years past for Connecticut. And the win added to titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011. This one was, by far, the most unexpected.
A short year ago, Connecticut was preparing for its first season in the new American Athletic Conference after being booted from the Big East and not welcomed by any of the so-called power conferences. Longtime coach Jim Calhoun left because of health problems. And most damaging -- the NCAA ban that sparked an exodus of five key players to the NBA or other schools.
Napier stuck around. So did Boatright. And Calhoun's replacement, Kevin Ollie, figured out how to get the most out of their grit and court sense.
"Coach Calhoun, the greatest coach ever," Ollie said. "He paved the way we just walked through it."
They were one step ahead of Kentucky all game, holding off furious rally after furious rally.
Kentucky's biggest push started when James Young (20 points, 7 rebounds) overpowered Amida Brimah with a monster dunk to start a three-point play and spark an 8-0 run.
In the middle of that, Boatright, who shut down Harrison's twin brother, Andrew, most of the game, twisted his left ankle while receiving an innocuous-looking pass from Napier. He called a timeout. Got it worked on and came back out.
Napier and Niels Giffey made 3s on Connecticut's next two possessions, and suddenly, that one-point lead was back to five -- fairly comfortable by this tight, taut, buzzer-beating tournament's standards.
The big question in Kentucky is what will happen to all those freshmen. Julius Randle (10 points, 6 rebounds) is a lottery pick if he leaves for the NBA. Young and the Harrison brothers might be first-rounders, too, but the question is whether they will want to leave on such a sour note. They were preseason No. 1, a huge disappointment through much of this season, then came on just in time for a run to the final.
First Published April 7, 2014 11:27 PM