The University of Connecticut may be the only basketball team to play a two-year season. But that’s how the Huskies treated last year’s NCAA postseason ban. Now they have a national title.
Senior Shabazz Napier turned in one final masterpiece as a college player Monday night in Arlington, Texas, lifting UConn to a 60-54 win over the University of Kentucky Wildcats and bringing home a championship hardly anyone thought was possible going in to last night’s game.
“It’s unbelievable because those guys, my players, stayed with the program,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.
Led by 22 points from Napier and a strong defense, the Huskies (32-8) won it all a year after previous teams’ academic problems kept them out of March Madness in 2013.
“You’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” Napier told the crowd and TV audience as confetti rained down. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you ban us.”
Napier kneeled down and put his forehead to the court for a long while after the buzzer sounded, and later wiped away tears when he cut down the net.
“I said in the beginning, 18 months ago when we started this process, that the last is going to be the first,” Ollie said of his two-year tenure after replacing the legendary Jim Calhoun, who stepped down in September 2012. “And now: We were last, and now we’re first. But we always did it together.”
UConn never trailed during Monday’s title game. The Huskies led by as many as 15 points in the first half and watched the Wildcats (29-11) trim the deficit to one with 8:13 left in the game. But Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison, who pulled out wins with clutch 3-pointers in the last three games, missed a 3-point shot from the left corner that would have given the ’Cats the lead. Kentucky never got that close again.
Student reaction to Harrison’s game-winner in Saturday’s national semifinals against the University of Wisconsin brought CBS cameras to the Christian Student Fellowship building on the Kentucky campus in anticipation of another big win. But Monday night, it was the Connecticut campus that celebrated, and some a bit too much: Police arrested about 30 UConn students as lampposts became matchsticks amid ecstatic revelers.
Kentucky coach John Calipari blamed his team’s surprise loss on the players’ youth, which eventually caught up with them under the pressure of the big game.
“You’ve been the most coachable team I’ve coached,” Calipari told his players after the game.
During post-game interviews, Calipari reminded reporters his key players were just 18 years old, playing in front of 79,238 fans—or “17 zillion,” as he put it. Their nervousness drained them early.
But Calipari took the blame for not helping the team find ways to make a play during several late-game chances to win:“I didn’t have the answers for them, but I’m proud of them.”
Calipari had nothing but praise for UConn, though, and especially coach Ollie. Once colleagues with the Philadelphia 76ers (Calipari as an assistant coach and Ollie as a player), they embraced with real affection before the game.
“I’m happy he won,” Calipari said afterward. “I hate losing, but I’m happy he won.”