Wiedmer: Huskies take third title in Texas

Wiedmer: Huskies take third title in Texas

April 8th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie celebrates while cutting down the net after beating Kentucky 60-54, at the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 7, 2014, in Arlington, Texas.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ARLINGTON, Texas - Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie tried to tell the nation Sunday that it would be this way, that his Huskies would harass Kentucky into oblivion, just as they had the last two opponents they'd played in this amazing NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"It hasn't been our offense, it's been our defense," Ollie said a little more than 30 hours before his team faced Kentucky in the championship game. "That's what we hang our hats on."

And that's what they'll be able to hang their fourth NCAA banner in 15 years on, the Huskies stifling UK all over the floor on their way to a 60-54 win against the eighth-seeded Wildcats and becoming the first No. 7 seed to win it all. It was the third straight game in which UConn's defense held an opponent under 55 points, following a 60-54 defeat of Michigan State in the East Regional final and a 63-53 conquest of Florida in the Final Four semis.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you're looking at the Hungry Huskies," said most outstanding player Shabazz Napier, who totaled 22 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals. And no one was hungrier than Napier, who was on UConn's 2011 champs, then watched the team banned from this event a year ago for academic reasons.

He could have transferred and played immediately, but he stuck around, determined to help Ollie build the program back.

"I'll say now what I said when I took the job two years ago," Ollie said. "The last will be first. We did this together."

Twice previously Huskies teams had cut down the nets deep in the heart of Texas, capturing the 2004 title over Georgia Tech in San Antonio's Alamodome and bettering Butler in 2011 in Houston with Napier backing up that year's MOP, Kemba Walker.

And despite the Wildcats' irrepressible faithful making up the vast majority of the crowd of 79,238 inside AT&T Stadium, UConn refused to surrender completely its early 15-point lead, though UK pulled within one at least four times in the final half.

In fact, being behind was nothing new to John Calipari's five freshman starters. In each of their previous four tourney games, the Wildcats had trailed by at least nine points. But when UConn jumped in front 17-8, this one felt different, perhaps because the Huskies looked twice as quick as UK all over the floor.

This was especially in the backcourt, where Napier and Ryan Boatright made the Cats' Harrison twins look as if they were Charles Barkley chasing Usain Bolt.

Every loose ball seemed to find its way to the Huskies' sticky fingers. The UConn lead grew to 30-15, the largest deficit that Big Blue faced the entire tournament. Yet this was also when Kentucky often had played its best.

Or as Calipari said of his Cardiac Cats on Sunday, "When we're down 10, it's amazing how we play. We're not real good up 10. But for some reason, down 10 we grow hair on our necks. We come after you."

And down 15, Big Blue once more blew hot, going on a 12-3 run to pull within six (33-27), then four at the break (35-31).

Given that UK hadn't led at halftime since its opening-round tourney win over Kansas State, this almost seemed like a victory for both teams. UConn got the lead it wanted to make the best use of its guard dominance. But the Huskies also had gained an edge that most prior Wildcats foes had not. They led their bigger foes in points in the paint -- 16-12 -- repeatedly out-quicking the taller Cats around the glass.

Most experts went into this one believing UConn had the backcourt edge. But if the Huskies could also win the paint points, the Cats' chances for a ninth national title might be slim.

Still, Kentucky had gotten the rally it needed to have a chance to come all the way back in the final 20 minutes. And when Aaron Harrison buried a 3-pointer at the start of the second half that was almost as deep as the one he hit to break Wisconsin's hearts in the semifinals, the Wildcats appeared to have finally gained the momentum, if not the lead. They were back within one at 35-34.

But the lead was what the Huskies kept refusing to relinquish. From that one-point cushion they roared back in front by nine (48-39) with a little over 11 minutes to play, Napier again hitting from the corner to score his 18th and 19th points of the night.

A stunning dunk by Alex Poythress rallied the Cats, and they again pulled within one, but they never got even.

It may not be the last time the Huskies win it all. The Final Four returns to Texas in 2016 with another visit to Houston. Bet against UConn capturing that one at your own peril.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.