Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Napier Leads UCONN Huskies to National Title over Kentucky


It was as improbable a finish as it was a run. The University of Connecticut Huskies are on top of the college basketball world, beating back an equally good Cinderella-tale in the Kentucky Wild Cats, 60-54 in Big D. The Huskies who were ranked 7th in the East region of the tournament and nearly forgotten by just about every expert, blew up everyone's brackets on Monday.

Who would have thought that a team that was once blown away 81-48 by Louisville exactly one month ago would find itself hoisting up the National Championship trophy? But they are, and its a testament to second year head coach Kevin Ollie, who went a perfect 6-0 in the NCAA tournament.

Ollie's super cool, and player friendly demeanor was the backbone of this great run. His confidence in his players when they beat back Villanova, a two seed, in the second game of this 64-team tourney was evidence that something good was cooking on the stove. He backed his players every step of the way, gave them a reason to believe, and they paid him back with a run for the ages.

Former Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, who watched from the stands throughout the run, must have a smile on his face from ear to ear, as he watched his former point guard and assistant coach take the team to its fourth national title in 15 years. You could almost see the confidence and lessons that Calhoun bestowed upon Ollie burst through his pours whenever he coached on the sidelines, or spoke with the media afterwards.

When the Huskies dominated Michigan State at the Garden in the Elite 8, en route to this Final Four, you knew this team had something special. They had the swagger of a champion; a gleam in their eyes that they didn't care who stood in their way, they would not be denied.

They destroyed Florida, a team everything and their grandmother thought would be a shoe-in for the National title in the Final Four. They erased a 12-point deficit to the Gators in the first half and turned it into a route, forcing Florida to make shots they never felt comfortable making, while Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels did their thing to dismantle the Gators.

Now facing Kentucky, a team that had an equally magical run through this tournament, it would be easy to think that Connecticut had met their match. The Wild Cats were pulling games out of their hats in the final seconds against Louisville and Wisconsin. Kentucky may have played the best game of this year's tournament when they came back to beat unbeaten Wichita State in the second round.

Without question, these were the two hottest teams in the country, and it was almost a shame that someone had to lose Monday.

But on this day it was all Connecticut, all the time. Kentucky never had the lead, and only twice were tied, 2-2 and 6-6. The closest they ever came was one point when Wild Cats hero Aaron Harrison opened up the second half with a three pointer to make it 35-34, but even that wasn't enough.

The Huskies were faster, smarter, more physical, and better at the free throw line. Midway through the first half, the Huskies opened up a 9-2 run, highlighted by a monster corner three-pointer by Napier as the Huskies built a 17-8 advantage.

You could almost feel the life being sucked out of Kentucky when Terrance Samuels hit a layup, Napier nailed another three-ball and Daniels hit a jumper to push the lead to 11-points, 26-15. Kentucky needed a run, or they were going to get run out of Dallas.

Give credit to Kentucky. James Young's three pointer, and Aaron Harrion's steal and dunk settled things down at 30-20, and helped Kentucky crawl back into it by halftime, 35-31, but there was something about this Connecticut team.

Kentucky didn't help themselves in the second half. They were missing free throw shots and jumpers like it was going out of style. Connecticut gave the Wild Cats a chance to take control of the game when Napier and Co. got careless with the basketball on their end, but Kentucky just couldn't get the ball to drop. At one point the Wild Cats missed five consecutive free throws. Free throws that Kentucky coach John Calipari wishes he had back.

With the game still reasonably close, German born, Niles Giffey and Napier put the nails into Kentucky's coffin. Giffey banked a three-pointer from the top of the arch to make it 44-39, and Napier added a jumper and three-pointer of his own to make it 51-47. The final dagger came from Giffey, who hit one last three ball to make it 54-49 with 6:39 to go.

When Giffey hit that last three, you could feel the party starting to simmer and explode in Storrs, Connecticut.

Napier, along with teammate Ryan Boatright willed this team to victory throughout the postseason. Boatright even spent the final 8:30 of this championship game on a bum ankle that he tweaked on a jumper. He wasn't going to miss out on this finale.

Napier was named game MVP with 22 points and 8-of-16 shooting. The Huskies as a team shot 41% from the floor, and were a perfect 10-for-10 in free throws. Kentucky, on the other hand, shot only 39% from the floor, and were a horrific 13-for-24, or 54%, from the foul line.

Congratulations Connecticut. They proved to all of us that while the regular season is very important, it's not how one starts, but how one finishes, and the Huskies finished as clearly the best team in basketball. That is all that matters.

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