ARLINGTON, Texas The University of Connecticut, a basketball program left behind in conference realignment and ineligible for the NCAA tournament just one year ago due to academic sanctions, won its fourth and most improbable national title on Monday, beating Kentucky 60-54 at AT&T Stadium.
Getting a clutch performance from senior guard Shabazz Napier and a lot of help from the Wildcats at the free-throw line, the Huskies were left standing at the end of a physical, ugly game and secured a number of historic markers, including becoming the first No. 7 seed to win it all.
"You're looking at the hungry Huskies," Napier told the crowd and TV audience. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you ban us."
Kevin Ollie, who took over the program from Jim Calhoun right before the 2012-13 season, became the first coach to win a national title in his first NCAA tournament since Steve Fisher in 1989.
And in doing so, Connecticut gave the American Athletic Conference, which was forced to split from the Big East in a messy divorce 15 months ago, a national title in its first year of existence.
"I thought this conference was good and if it held together, we could do great things," said AAC commissioner Mike Aresco. "It helps you attract kids, helps you attract coaches."
Asked whether he felt like the AAC got the last laugh this season, Aresco said, "No, not all all. What I have is a feeling of quiet satisfaction.?"
Ollie became the 13th coach to win a title at his alma mater and the fourth African-American coach to lead a team to an NCAA Division I men's basketball championship, joining Georgetown's John Thompson, Arkansas' Nolan Richardson and Kentucky's Tubby Smith. "We always did it together and always played as a group," Ollie said.
About missing the tournament last year, Ollie said: "I told you the last will be the first. Last year we couldn't get in the tournament. But we kept believing."
Though Connecticut never trailed, Kentucky threatened to come back a number of times. Ultimately, though, the Wildcats -- who made their own improbable journey to the championship game as a No. 8 seed -- couldn't overcome shooting 13-of-24 from the foul line.
Napier, who scored 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting, made a three-pointer with 6:50 left from the top of the key that seemed to halt Kentucky's momentum. Then DeAndre Daniels, who struggled all game and made just 4-of-14 field goals, gave Connecticut a 58-52 lead with 2:45 left on a hesitation move under the basket that put the Huskies in position to close out the title.
"We had our chances to win," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We just didn't have enough."
Connecticut scored 30 points in the first 14 minutes of the game but just 11 over the next 14, starting the second half 1-for-10 from the field and giving Kentucky reason to believe it could come back one final time.
"Til the horn blows, I was thinking, 'We are winning this game,' " Calipari said. "If I'm going to get my team to believe that, I have to believe that. We missed some shots that we needed to make.We missed some free throws. But these kids are not machines, they're not robots or computers.
"I wish I had an answer for them later in the game."
Connecticut built the lead back to 48-39 with 10:50 left until Kentucky scored the next eight points. But the Wildcats couldn't get over the hump, even as fouls mounted against Connecticut's frontcourt and Huskies guard Ryan Boatright dealt with a sore left ankle that he turned with nine minutes left.
"There aren't many words you can use to describe this," said Jim Calhoun, who coached Ollie and led the Huskies to three national titles. "It's so fun to watch five assistants who played for us and seven guys we recruited do this. I think the hope and prayer I had was the hardest thing Kevin faced was transitioning to be the UConn people know. We are the best championship team in the last 20 years. That's not an easy mantle to inherit and he's handled it exceptionally well."
The first half followed a familiar script for Kentucky, which trailed early by at least nine points for a fifth straight game in the NCAA tournament. Only this time, Connecticut was able to push the lead to 30-15 after 14 minutes, the Wildcats' largest deficit of the tournament.
But once again, Kentucky's resilience -- and Connecticut's foul trouble -- came to the surface before the end of the half. With Boatright and Daniels going to the bench with two fouls each and the Wildcats switching to a zone defense, the Huskies scored just five more points over the final six minutes of the half, allowing Kentucky to close within 35-31.?
One of the biggest differences of the game was free throw efficiency. Though Kentucky made more and shot more, it missed 11. Connecticut went 10-for-10, becoming the first team to be perfect from the line in a men's championship game. For the tournament, the Huskies were 101 for 115, or 87.8%. ---