The University of Connecticut men's basketball team was banned from the NCAA tournament due to poor academics last season. Its amazing how life can change in a year.
The Huskies defeated the young Wildcats of Kentucky 60-54, to claim their 4th title since 1999. UCONN is now 4-0 in the National Championship games, and if they weren't before, they are certainly the best program in the past 20 years. Unlike the UCONN squads of the past, this team wasn't a favorite to take home the title, being a 7th seed in the tournament. In fact they almost didn't make it out of the 1st round, defeating St. Joes 89-81 in overtime.
In my opinion, I think UCONN controlled the entire game. They came out early very fast and active on the defensive end, that led to some fast break buckets. A big dunk by Deandre Daniels 2 minutes into the game was a wake up call for everyone that UCONN was not going to play around with these young boys. With 5:30 left in the 1st half, the Huskies had built a 30-15 lead but it was far from over.
The Wildcats used a 13-5 run in the last 5 minutes of the half to cut the Huskies' lead to 4 points. Coach Calipari, who did the best coaching of his career in this tournament, switched to a 2-3 zone to slow up the guards of UCONN, mainly Boatright and Napier. Boatright and Napier made life hell for anyone who was guarding them at the top of the key, especially when the big man had to switch on the pick roll. Kentucky manage it well though and closed the gap. James Young hit two 3s on that run but what helped the Wildcats mostly was Boatright and Daniels getting into foul trouble at the end of the half.
Julius Randle only had 8 points in the first half, but was doing a great job of controlling the paint. From the first game of the season, I knew this kid was a beast. It's very little finesse in his game, everything is straight power, something you don't see from college kids too often now a days.
The Huskies mainly used a committee to contain big Randle and for the most part, they did well enough to not let him beat them. They forced the Cats to rely on the 3 point shot, which actually kept them in the game.
For majority of the 2nd half, Kentucky looked to be the better team. Both teams started off slow, combined for 4 point in the first 5 minutes, but we've seen this before with the Wildcats in this tournament. Teams have allowed them to linger and next thing you know, they're winning the game. Not this time. Kentucky was making all the stops on defensive end, especially at the rim, Dakari Johnson and Julius guarding the paint with their lives. The zone made it difficult for Napier and Boatright to workout so they had to feed the big men, but that wasn't very successful. Despite their struggles, they never let go of the lead.
Coach Ollie put the ball in the hands of his great guards in the final stretch and let them bring it home. Napier scored 22 points with 6 boards and 3 steals while Boatright finished with 14 points and 3 steals also. You can tell that Jim Calhoun still had a finger on this team because it looked like a typical UCONN team. These are players he recruited just with a different coach. Guard oriented with athletic wing and big men, plus veteran leadership.
With 8 minutes remaining in the game, Huskies were up by one, 48-47, until Shabazz hit a 3 pointer that was followed by a Julius Randle layup, making the score 51-49. On the ensuing possession, Shabazz hit a wide open Niels Giffey at the top of the key for another 3 pointer that pretty much sealed the game for the Huskies. The Wildcats could never turn the corner.
After the game during the trophy presentation, Shabazz spoke some very truthful words;
You're looking at the hungry Huskies, ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you banned us.
Shabazz, Boatright, Giffey, Daniels, and Tyler Olander all could have transferred or entered the draft after the program was put on sanctions but nope, they stayed committed to the program. For Shabazz, Olander, and Giffey, this is their 2nd title, along with coach Ollie, who were all apart of the 2011 championship team. I can't think of another program that came back and won the national championship after being ban from postseason play in the previous year. This shows you how strong this program is. UCONN doesn't use a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans, none on this current squad, and instead groom their players for the long run. Some may say that UCONN isn't a historic program because their history only begins in the mid-90s but you can't name another program that produce the amount of talent and championships in the past 20 years. I think that counts for something.