ARLINGTON, Texas — Led by one of a dying breed in college basketball, a senior point guard who spurned chances to leave early for the NBA, Connecticut upended a Kentucky team that had cornered the market on talent to claim the school’s fourth NCAA championship on Monday.
Shabazz Napier did nearly everything for his Huskies at AT&T Stadium, leading all players with 22 points, dictating the tempo and calling the shots for his team to direct a 60-54 victory before a NCAA championship-record crowd of 79,238 that included the country’s past two presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who sat side-by-side in a luxury box.
Led by second-year Coach Kevin Ollie, a former Connecticut point guard and assistant coach, the seventh-seeded Huskies (32-8) vanquished a Kentucky team that included seven McDonald’s all-Americans. Napier was named most outstanding player of the Final Four.
Ollie built his team the same way he built his own 13-year career as an NBA backup, on hard work, persistence and belief.
The Huskies bolted to a 15-point lead, weathered a 16-5 run that all but negated that advantage and kept their composure down the stretch, while No. 8 Kentucky (29-11) failed to pull off what would have been its fourth consecutive come-from-behind victory.
Kentucky was led by James Young’s 20 points, while its star forward, Julius Randle, was held to 10.
It was a championship matchup not even the coaches’ wives would have predicted three weeks ago.
Neither team qualified for the tournament last season. This season, talent-laden Kentucky, anointed the preseason No. 1, fell short of expectations and by season’s end had fallen out of the national rankings entirely. Connecticut, back in the NCAA’s good graces after serving a one-year ban from the tournament because of poor academic performance, ended the season ranked No. 18.
Still, both programs were steeped in postseason glory, with 11 NCAA men’s basketball championships between them (eight for Kentucky; three for Connecticut).
This season’s squads trotted onto the court with distinctly different strengths: Kentucky awash in talent; Connecticut, rich in experience, particularly at point guard, with Napier running the floor.
Kentucky’s strong suit was its heft up front, where Randle dominated the paint and feasted on rebounds. Through each round of the tournament, the Wildcats had ratcheted up the pressure in the second half.
The Wildcats had hoped to become the first team of all-freshmen starters to win the NCAA championship. Now the speculation turns whether they’ll join the ranks of the one-and-dones and defect the college ranks for the NBA.
Randle, playing before a home crowd, was pulled less than three minutes in with apparent leg cramps but rejoined the lineup soon after, earning a trip to free throw line, Wildcats trailing 13-6.
Ryan Boatright, covered well on a drive to the basket, wrong-footed two defenders, cut back and laid it in for a reverse that put Connecticut up 17-8, prompting Calipari’s first time-out with 13 minutes 8 seconds remaining in the first half.
To that point, the Huskies had made seven baskets; Kentucky, just two.
The Wildcats looked rattled. Aaron Harrison Sr., the father of Kentucky freshmen Aaron and Andrew, was shouting instructions from his seat. Kentucky couldn’t hit free throws, couldn’t hit from long range and committed four turnovers in the first 10 minutes — as many as it had the entire game against Wisconsin.
Trailing by 15, Kentucky Coach John Calipari switched to a zone defense, and the hapless Wildcats changed their spots, helped by Boatright’s relegation to the bench with two fouls.
Young’s first three-pointer of the night keyed the 12-3 run that followed. It was one huge shot after another, including a dunk and long-range bomb from the 6-foot-6 Harrison twins. In a flash, the Wildcats had slashed the Huskies’ lead to single digits. Randle hit his first basket with 1:03 to play, then got a put-back that closed the half on a 16-5 run.
Connecticut led 35-31 at the break.
True to form, Kentucky struck quickly to start the second period.
And with the Wildcats bottling up the front court, Connecticut couldn’t drive the ball, couldn’t hit from outside and seemingly couldn’t even communicate its plays, with Napier stiff-arming his own backcourt mate, Boatright, on one foray down the court.
Kentucky trailing by nine, Young stormed down court for a monster dunk and let out a roar of defiance before sinking the extra point.
Napier tried settled the tempo to stave off the brewing shift of momentum. But Kentucky pulled within one with 8:13 to play on a pair of free throws by Young.
Niels Giffey hit from beyond the arc to restore a little cushion.
From there, Napier did all he could to slow the pace.
The Huskies got a huge offensive rebound from reserve Lasan Kromah that kept the ball out of Kentucky’s hands and proved key in quashing any thought of another Wildcats rally.