ARLINGTON, Texas — Among Kevin Ollie’s many notable phrases is “believing in the dark.” He expects his players to believe, even when they can’t see.
When he took them to the site of the Final Four in January, he expected them to believe. When he grabbed the mic at Gampel Pavilion and told the 10,000 fans he planned to come back in April and hang a banner, he expected them to believe.
Really, Coach? The way the Huskies were playing in Texas in January, the way they struggled to beat Rutgers on senior night and were blown out at Louisville three days later.
Really. The Huskies completed an improbable run through the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed and finally cashed the very big check Kevin Ollie wrote for them. They finished it with a 60-54 victory over Kentucky in the national championship game before 79,238 at AT&T Stadium on Monday night.
Ollie also famously said, “We take the stairs and not the escalator.” Those stairs have taken them to the national championship.
Make room for another banner at Gampel. Ollie will be hanging the fourth championship banner in school history, his first, in only 19 months after replacing Jim Calhoun.
UConn is 4-0 in national championship games, having also won in 1999, 2004 and 2011.
And as in 2004, the Huskies can own two national titles if the UConn women beat Notre Dame Tuesday night in Nashville. Both teams are undefeated.
Shabazz Napier scored 22 points, Ryan Boatright 14 and Niels Giffey 10 as UConn sent the Wildcats’ five freshmen, one of the highest rated recruiting class, home, and probably to the NBA, empty handed. Kentucky (29-11) was the top-ranked team in the preseason, but did not begin playing like it until making its own crazy tournament run. Kentucky never led in the game.
The Huskies (32-8) opened up an early 15-point lead and spent the rest of the game hanging on to it with all the tenacity they could muster. The Wildcats cut it down to four at the half, and down to one early in the second half.
UConn put together a 7-0 run to stretch it back out to nine points with 11:39 to play, but again the Wildcats surged back quickly. By this time, they had gotten UConn’s big men, including DeAndre Daniels, in foul trouble. But Kentucky was missing half its free throws, and the Huskies continued to cling to a slim lead.
Napier hit a three-pointer, a tough, contested shot at the end of the clock, to put UConn ahead by four, and Giffey hit another on the next possession to make it 54-49. Daniels scored off a lob pass from Boatright to make 58-52 game, and the Huskies had a chance to finally lock it down. James Young scored 20 points for the ‘Cats.
UConn started out doing all the things it did against Florida, and more. The Huskies’ defense harried Kentucky into six early turnovers – whereas the Wildcats had only four in the entire semifinal game against Wisconsin.
Napier hit two three-point shots, scoring 13 points in the first 14 minutes, and Boatright was as effective on offense as he was on defense. UConn jumped to a 19-10 lead on Boatright’s pull-up jumper and extended it to 30-15with 5:59 left in the half on two free throws by Giffey.
The Huskies had a slight edge in rebounding to that point and were dominating in the paint, but Kentucky stopped turning it over and its best big man, Julius Randle, began to take over. James Young hit three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to pull the Wildcats to seven, and Randle powered through the lane for two baskets late in the half. Kentucky cut UConn’s lead to 35-31 at the break, the momentum having clearly shifted.
Andrew Harrison’s three opened the second half and cut the lead to one, but Boatright responded with another pull-up jumper.
The momentum was up for grabs over the early minutes of the half but Wildcats were not capitalizing on their chances at the free throw line and the Huskies held their lead. Daniels, who was having a quiet game, scored on a tip-in, and Giffey hit a big three-pointer to restore the lead to five, 44-39. Boatright made a steal at midcourt and drew a foul as he went to the rim, and hit both from the line – the Huskies were 8-for-8 – to put UConn ahead 47-39 with 11:39 to play. Then Napier scored to make it a nine-point game again.
Young completed a three-point play to make it 48-42 as the game crossed the 10-minute mark.
Distributed by MCT Information Services