Connecticut, the team that never beat SMU during an up-and-down regular season, earned the right to forever be called college basketball’s 2014 national champion Monday at AT&T Stadium.
The Huskies held off Kentucky 60-54 in front of the largest crowd to watch an NCAA title game (79,238) by relying on a few time-honored fundamentals: protect the ball while protecting a lead, hit your free throws in crunch time and lean on veteran leaders when the pressure mounts.
The Huskies, who never trailed, held off multiple Kentucky runs during the second half that cut the lead the one or two points. But the Huskies leaned on senior guard Shabazz Napier, who contributed a game-high 22 points, and his backcourt companion, junior Ryan Boatright (14 points, three assists), to prevent Kentucky from becoming the first team to start five freshmen while winning a national championship.
Of UConn’s points, 58 of 60 came from juniors or seniors. Kentucky, meanwhile, relied on freshmen for 50 of its 54 points.
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UConn (32-8) completed a Texas Trifecta by claiming its third national title in three Final Four trips to venues in the Lone Star State: Arlington (2014), Houston (2011) and San Antonio (2004). Among the three, this one may have been the most unlikely because the Huskies needed overtime to outlast St. Joseph’s in their opening tournament game and rattled off six consecutive wins despite beginning the tournament as the No. 7 seed in the East Region.
UConn became the first No. 7 seed to claim an NCAA title since the seeding process began in 1979. Only in 1985, when Villanova claimed the title as a No. 8 seed, has a lower-seeded team claimed an NCAA title.
Kentucky (29-11), the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region, had an opportunity to make history as an unlikely titleist but struggled from the free-throw line, hitting just 54.2 percent of its attempts (13 of 24). UConn did not miss, making 10 of 10. Included were a pair of free throws by Lasan Kromah with 25 seconds remaining that gave the Huskies a six-point lead to protect down the stretch. They protected it until the end, triggering a flood of emotions from Boatright, who played through a sprained ankle in the second half.
“It took a special team, an unbelievable team. We stuck together when everyone doubted us,” Boatright said. “We stuck together and pulled this national championship out. I’ve got a lot of heart, and I wasn’t coming out because of an ankle sprain. This moment was too big.”
As confetti flew and the Huskies accepted their championship trophy, Napier took an official bow to the crowd as the most outstanding player at the Final Four. But he made sure to stress it was a shared honor.
“My teammates gave it their all,” he said. “Their hearts were too big. You are looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens.”
As a result, a UConn team that lost both of its regular-season matchups to SMU, an NIT competitor, and posted an 0-3 record against conference rival Louisville, became the fourth squad from the school to earn a national championship since 1999.
These Huskies did it by holding off the hard-charging Wildcats over the final 8:13 after Kentucky closed within 48-47. But Napier and Niels Giffey (10 points, five rebounds), two seniors who were part of UConn’s 2011 title team, buried 3-point shots on consecutive possessions to boost the lead to 54-49.
When Kentucky closed within four on three occasions, baskets by Boatright and DeAndre Daniels as well as Kromah’s free throws helped extend the lead and keep Kentucky at bay.
Despite a significant size disadvantage, UConn won the battle of the boards 34-33 against the taller Wildcats. Napier and Boatright also kept the heat on Kentucky’s guards, making three steals each and helping force 13 Kentucky turnovers.
“Until the horn blows, I’m thinking we’re winning this game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
But the Wildcats, in many ways, carved out too large of an early deficit. Leaning on its superior quickness in the backcourt, Connecticut sprinted to an early lead and doubled the score on Kentucky, 30-15, in the first 14 minutes. Napier had 10 points in the early surge and 15 in the first half, when the Huskies built a 35-31 advantage. Calipari said his team’s youth played a role in the slow start.
“They’re all freshmen. They’re scared to death again,” Calipari said. “We tried to settle them down, and we were rattled early. Then we settled down and started playing.”
But Kentucky never caught up as forward Julius Randle (10 points, six rebounds) battled cramps and the UConn guards created havoc while claiming a national title at the best-attended Final Four in history (158,682 for two sessions).
“We always did it together and always played as a group,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “This is what it is all about.”