Kentucky-UConn: A surprising showdown for NCAA men's title


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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Connecticut and Kentucky couldn't have met in last year's championship and few people gave them a chance to be in this year's.

Seventh-seeded Connecticut and eighth-seeded Kentucky meet tonight in one of the unlikeliest NCAA championships ever.

Neither was around in last year's tournament -- Connecticut because of a postseason ban over academic issues; Kentucky because it didn't make the field. And neither looked like title contenders at times this season.

Kentucky (29-10) and its outstanding freshmen went from preseason No. 1 to out of the rankings after some bad losses. And Connecticut (31-8) was not a popular postseason pick after finishing tied for third in the American Athletic Conference with multiple losses to Louisville and SMU.

In the tournament, the Huskies have stopped some of the country's top guards and put themselves in position for their fourth national championship, the previous three under Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.

"Hopefully we have an opportunity to fall back on our defense," second-year coach Kevin Ollie said. "We have been doing that the whole year."

If Kentucky has a chance to win in the final minute, that defense better pay attention to guard Aaron Harrison, one of five freshmen starters.

He has hit huge 3-pointers in the Wildcats' past three games. Harrison rattled in a 26-footer with 5.7 seconds to go in the 74-73 win against Wisconsin in the semifinals. He made almost the exact same shot with 2.3 seconds left against Michigan for a 75-72 win that sent the Wildcats to the Final Four. Against Louisville, he hit a 3 with 39 seconds left to give Kentucky the lead for good in a 74-69 win.

"The biggest thing is he's not afraid to miss," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "He's OK with it. He's comfortable in his own skin. ... If you're going to make those kind of shots, you absolutely cannot be afraid to miss them."

These two programs have combined to win six of the past 18 NCAA titles.

"Playing against Connecticut, I mean, I'm just happy we're still playing," Calipari said.

Neither program could say that last year.

Connecticut was banned from the postseason after failing to meet NCAA academic standards. It had practice limitations and lost a scholarship. The players could have transferred, but didn't. The Huskies finished 20-10 in Ollie's first year. They took the hit and made it back to the biggest stage.

The leader of the group is All-American Shabazz Napier, who leads the team in almost every statistical category. He's the guy who makes the big shot or big pass. Fellow guard Ryan Boatright has taken some of the spotlight recently for his defensive performances against the likes of Keith Appling of Michigan State and Scottie Wilbekin of Florida.

"Defense is the biggest thing for me. The points will come," the 6-foot Boatright said. "I want to make him uncomfortable, don't let him get in a rhythm or flow. Their guards, God blessed them with height and they will try to take advantage of smaller guys like us, but I've been the smaller guy my whole life and I've never backed down."

Kentucky is playing its best basketball lately, led by big man Julius Randle and the Harrison twins.

"We just had too much talent and we saw in spurts how good we could be," Randle said. "So it just felt like it was a matter of time before it clicked."

Now the Wildcats are on an 11-game winning streak in the NCAA tournament and are one win from a ninth national championship for Kentucky.

"We all play the game of basketball to compete against the best," Napier said. "This is one of them games. ... They worked hard to get to this point and we did, too. We're going to do our best to get this 'W.' "

Uncharted territory

The matchup of No. 7 Connecticut and No. 8 Kentucky is the lowest combination of seeds to ever play for the national championship. Here's a look at other title games featuring low seeds:

2014 No. 7 Connecticut No. 8 Kentucky; TBD

2011 No. 3 Connecticut No. 8 Butler; Connecticut (53-41)

1980 No. 2 Louisville No. 8 UCLA; Louisville (59-54)

1985 No. 1 Georgetown No. 8 Villanova; Villanova (66-64)

1983 No. 1 Houston No. 6 N.C. State; N.C. State (54-52)


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