Gil LeBreton

UConn’s experience too much for young Kentucky to handle

Live by the freshman, die by the freshman.

Long of tooth, on the other hand, and poised to the finish, the Connecticut Huskies showed the college basketball world the value of staying the course Monday night.

Shabazz Napier, UConn’s All-America playmaker, is a senior. His running mate with the long reach and lightning-strike hands, Ryan Boatright, is a junior.

This, as it turned out, was your true One and Done.

One game, one night, with the Huskies prevailing over precocious, freshman-laden Kentucky 60-54 for the NCAA title.

It was as easy as freshman algebra. Napier and Boatright combined for 36 points, 10 rebounds, six steals and six assists. UConn’s other starting senior, German-born Niels Giffey, added 10 points and junior DeAndre Daniels had eight.

But the battle was inside, as it usually was with Kentucky this season. The Wildcats led the nation in offensive rebounds, bullying through the paint — and nearly all of the NCAA tournament — while often relying upon 6-foot-9 Dallas product Julius Randle to clean up their mistakes.

Seasoned collegians, however, are supposed to be rid of tournament fears. The Huskies never cowered when or where it mattered most. UConn actually out-rebounded the Wildcats 34-33.

The Kentucky story is a fabled and, lately, only a two-semester one. So many high pedigree freshmen are lined up to wear the Kentucky blue, coach John Calipari was able to replenish his roster with seven more who played for the title Monday night.

As UConn showed, however, in beating tournament foes Iowa State, Michigan State and Florida, the true March Madness currency is experience and defense.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Napier said after the game, “you are looking at the hungry Huskies.”

With Napier and Boatright as their calming influences, the Huskies withstood every Kentucky run, including a building-rattling dunk by James Young midway in the second half that threatened to light a game-turning spark.

Not long after the dunk, Boatright injured his left ankle while catching a routine inbounds pass. Coach Kevin Ollie called timeout, and Boatright sat down, rocking in obvious pain.

“I’ve got a lot of heart,” said Boatright, who played on to the end. “I wasn’t coming out.

“We put in too much work all year for me to give up on an ankle sprain. This moment was too big.”

It was Boatright whose defense seemed to deter so many Kentucky penetrations in the first half. The Wildcats were forced into what was, for them, foreign territory — 15 feet or so — and made only five of their first 17 shots.

Calipari’s switch to a zone paid dividends for a spell, but again the poised Huskies figured out a way. Kentucky was able to trim the lead, but never took it.

“We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance and made the baskets coming out at the half,” Calipari said. “I thought we were going to win the game.

“As it wound down and it was a three-point game, they needed more from me. You’re talking all freshmen out there. They needed more from me.”

Calipari, who won a title with mostly freshmen two years ago, was only being protective. He refused to use the Wildcats’ errant free-throw shooting (13 of 24) as the reason for the loss.

“You could say that,” he said, “but the way we started the game probably cost us the game. They’re scared to death. We tried to settle them down, but we were rattled early.”

Live by the freshman, die by the freshman ... but don’t ever diminish what a team of seasoned upperclassmen can do.

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