ARLINGTON, Tex. — Led by one of a dying breed in college basketball, a NBA-worthy point guard who stayed in school for his senior year, Connecticut toppled a Kentucky team that had cornered the market on teenage talent to claim the school’s fourth NCAA championship on Monday.
Senior Shabazz Napier did nearly everything for his Huskies at AT&T Stadium, scoring a game-high 22 points, directing the offense and controlling the tempo in Connecticut’s 60-54 victory before a NCAA championship-record crowd of 79,238 that included past presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton looking on as giddy seatmates from a luxury box.
It was Connecticut’s fourth national title in the last 15 years and its least probable. The Huskies became the lowest seed, at No. 7, to win the national championship since Villanova in 1985. And their triumph followed a one-year ban from the postseason because it had fallen short of the NCAA’s minimal academic standards.
“This is what happens when you ban us!” a jubilant Napier said into a TV camera as confetti rained around him, explaining later that the Huskies hadn’t been driven by revenge so much as hunger.
“We came out here to play,” said Napier, who was voted most outstanding player of the Final Four. “We didn’t listen to any doubters.”
It represented a triumph for second-year Coach Kevin Ollie, a former Connecticut point guard and assistant coach, whose team vanquished a Kentucky squad loaded with seven McDonald’s all-Americans.
After helping cut down the nets, Ollie shared a hug with former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., who had broadcast the game courtside.
Initially named Connecticut’s coach on an interim basis following the resignation of Jim Calhoun, Ollie scored his first victory in persuading Napier and the nucleus of the team to stay in school despite the postseason ban. Then he proceeded to rebuild the team the same way he had forged a 13-year career as a NBA backup — on hard work, persistence and belief.
A man of deep faith, Ollie had told his players that the last would be first.
“We are first now,” Ollie said afterward.
The first team to start five freshmen in a Final Four since Michigan in 1992, No. 8 seed Kentucky (29-11) had reached Monday’s title game in heart-stopping fashion, with 6-6 guard Aaron Harrison sinking three-pointers that clinched victories in the Wildcats’ last three games.
After getting off to a sluggish start, Kentucky seemed poised to do it again.
Connecticut (32-8) had bolted to a 15-point lead in the first half, while Kentucky looked rattled. The Wildcats couldn’t hit free throws, couldn’t hit from long range and committed four turnovers in the first 10 minutes — as many as they had their entire semifinal against Wisconsin.
But after Kentucky Coach John Calipari switched to a zone defense to slow the Huskies’ attack, the Wildcats closed the period on a 16-5 run that narrowed Connecticut’s lead at the break to 35-31.
True to form, Kentucky struck quickly to start the second half.
And a physical, fast-paced game of catch-up ensued.
Kentucky had the bigger, more imposing front court, anchored by 6-9, 260-pound forward Julius Randle. They also had bigger guards, the 6-6 Harrison twins.
But time and again, Connecticut’s 6-1 Napier and 6-0 Boatright blew past Kentucky’s twins for layups.
“Me and Shabazz got a lot of heart, and we’re tough,” Boatright said. “We’re tough minded and tough physically. We moved our feet and stayed in front of them.
When Kentucky pulled within one, 48-47, with 8 minutes 13 seconds remaining, Napier hit the biggest of his four three-pointers.
The Wildcats’ trailed by four points with 68 seconds remaining.
But with Napier and Boatright handling the ball, the Huskies did a great job of denying another Wildcats rally.
Calipari wouldn’t let his players foul, mindful of the Connecticut guards’ free-throw prowess. As a result, Kentucky got off just two shots in the final 68 seconds — a three-pointer by Andrew Harrison with 14 seconds remaining, and a three-pointer by his twin, Aaron, with nine seconds to play.
This time, neither twin could conjure magic.
“We just didn’t come out with enough energy out there,” Aaron Harrison said. “I guess we were a little bit nervous.”
Connecticut also made all 10 of its free throws, while Kentucky was 13 of 24 from the line.
Calipari dismissed a suggestion that free throws cost Kentucky the game.
“The way we started the game probably cost us the game,” Calipari said. “They’re all freshmen. They’re scared to death again. We tried to settle them down, and we were rattled early.”
Kentucky was led by James Young’s 20 points; Randle (10) was the only other player in double figures.
In Ollie’s analysis, it was a victory of faith more than skill or tactics.
“They believed in a vision before anybody,” Ollie said of his Huskies. “That’s the beautiful thing about this championship for me, when I reflect on it — those guys’ toughness, but also their togetherness.”