Going into this game, I was definitely lamenting the fact that the Huskies were facing Kentucky, and not Wisconsin, because UConn had played the underdog all tournament long. Kentucky came into this game on a very similar “Cinderella” type story, with five freshman in the starting lineup, so I knew they’d be geared up to take on the more experienced Huskies bunch. The game started ugly, got very exciting in the second half and the Huskies were able to put pull off the championship win.
Unlike the last few games, this one started out great for the Huskies, and they led 30-15 at one point early on. John Calipari’s Wildcats looked overmatched, and every bit the freshmen that they were. UConn’s experience, not just in college games, but in tournament play showed early on, which is how they were able to build such a big lead. Shortly after that, however, Kentucky’s young guns settled in, started hitting threes and pulled this game to 35-31 Huskies at the half. We had a ballgame on our hands!
James Young (20 points, 7 rebounds) is really the one who got hot for Kentucky, and his surge pulled the Wildcats to within one point. That’s when the Huskies’ experience really shone through. Shabazz Napier, who was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, hit a huge three to put UConn up by 4; and another senior, Niels Giffey, hit an even bigger three shortly thereafter to extend the lead and give UConn some much needed breathing room. It was fitting that Napier, who finished with 22 points and hit 4 big three-pointers on the night, and Giffey, who chipped in 10 points of his own, hit those big shots. When it was all said and done, these two guys became the first players to ever win national championship games in their freshman and senior years (2011).
The Wildcats pulled within one point again even later in the game, but the Huskies just wouldn’t give up the lead. It was Napier who really became an extension of coach Kevin Ollie on the floor, doing all that he could to keep his teammates’ heads in the game. At one point, fellow Huskies guard Ryan Boatright lost his head a bit and ran the wrong rotation on a play, and Napier nearly shoved him onto the floor. Boatright seemed almost offended at first, but understood that Napier was just being the leader he’s shown himself to be, and quickly got back in step. Boatright actually ended up playing an outstanding game, gutting through a late ankle injury and finishing with 14 points. There were a couple of times when the Wildcats were inching close, only for Boatright to step back and hit a big bucket to cool their jets.
You really can’t take anything away from the Wildcats. Coach Calipari used seven freshman and two sophomores to reach the national championship game, and then almost won the damn thing. I mean sure, in a couple of years the title would have been stripped due to recruiting violations and other debauchery (oh come on, you know its coming), but it still would have been an amazing win for them. They should be good for as long as all those freshmen stay around. Despite having a bad game, Aaron Harrison looks like a big time player, and their defenders down low, Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle, look like absolute beasts in the making.
Kevin Ollie, meanwhile, looks like the man right about now. He told a story on the post-game presser about earlier this year, after UConn had lost a couple of tough games in Texas, when he took them to AT&T Stadium and told them they’d be here playing for the national championship in April. Starting with Napier, who made a similar promise after UConn’s 33 point loss to Louisville early in the year, the team bought in and rode the dream all the way to the title. For Ollie, who spent four years at UConn and 13 seasons riding NBA benches to learn his coaching craft (Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant and Lebron James are among those who credit Ollie with helping mold them into professionalsa), this must be extra sweet. When Jim Calhoun stepped down as Head Coach after the sanctions came down that banned UConn from post-season play last year, Ollie was only given the title of Interim Head Coach. After taking the Huskies all the way in his first NCAA Tournament appearance (the first to do so since Steve Fisher in 1989b), the Huskies might be scrambling to keep him around. I wouldn’t be surprised if the NBA came calling for Ollie, with a little bit of a different bench role this time around. I’m not sure Ollie would leave, but it’s hard to turn down the NBA.
Either way, Ollie and the Huskies run will go down in history. Congratulations to the UConn Huskies, the first ever seventh seed to win the big dance!
Napier Discusses the “Hungry Huskies”:
As usual, here’s the box score, courtesy of ESPN.
Featured image courtesy of: Jamie Squire/Getty
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