In a matchup of two controversial programs (each with great success but large chips on their shoulders), Connecticut beat Kentucky 60-54 Monday night to win the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in North Texas. It is the fourth championship for Connecticut, all since 1999. No other school has won more than two in that span.
The Huskies led by as many as 15 points in this one and never trailed. Kentucky had 12 possessions in the second half with a chance to tie or take the lead. They shot only one-for-nine with three turnovers on those opportunities. The young Wildcats could not summon up the same magic that had led them from behind to win the previous four games en route to the final.
Final Four Most Outstanding Player Shabazz Napier led UConn with 22 points to go with six rebounds and three assists. Connecticut wins the title after missing the 2013 tournament due to NCAA sanctions over poor academic performance. Despite its feeling it had done enough, the NCAA ruled UConn had not shown enough improvement in the classroom. It is a chip the Huskies have carried on them all season.
“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 banned us.”
Kentucky has had its own self-made crosses to bear along their run, mostly centered on controversial coach John Calipari and his way of doing things. The first team to start five freshmen in a championship game since Michigan’s Fab Five in 1993, Kentucky struggled to find their way this season. They will likewise struggle next season as the majority of these players, if not all of them, will be gone either to the NBA, or the D-League, or simply cast aside for a new freshman who may possess something different.
The template was the same all tournament long for UK, i.e., fall behind early, make a run close to halftime, stay close, then get some breaks and hit a big shot at the end. They had won their five previous tournament games by a combined 18 points. Once again they were there at the end, but this time they could not get over the top.
The main difference was Connecticut made all 10 free throws they shot on the night, while the ‘Cats made but 13-of-24. UConn missed only 14 free throws in six games, accounting for 88% makes. As a result Kentucky chose not to foul down the stretch, a good strategy if UK could force turnovers or get rebounds. That did not happen down the stretch, or all night for that matter. Connecticut outrebounded Kentucky 33-32 and turned the ball over only nine times.
Connecticut became the first #7-seed to ever win the NCAA Championship, in a year that just reinforced the fact that seeds truly no longer matter, especially after the first game or two. It figured to be a crazy tournament and it was just that. But it was also in some ways, a fight over the soul of the game.
There is increasing resistance to Kentucky’s so-called ‘One-and-Done’ model, and it nearly won out again. But Connecticut proved there is still a place for team and togetherness, and being a group the fans do not necessarily need a program in their hand at all times to keep up with. These two programs in many ways have come to represent what is wrong. This UConn team however, certainly had it right.