University of Connecticut senior guard Shabazz Napier (Roxbury, Mass.) turned in another all-court masterpiece Monday night to lift the Huskies to a 60-54 win over Kentucky’s freshmen in the final game of 2014 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. The game was played before a record crowd of 79,238 at AT&T Stadium.
UConn has now four NCAA championships (1999, 2004, 2011 and 2014) and joins an elite group of six programs that have won four or more titles that also includes UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina and Duke. UConn also has an all-time Final Four record of 8-1 for an 88.9 winning percentage – the best in tournament history, easily outdistancing North Carolina State at 83.3.
Napier had 22 points, six rebounds and three assists, and his partner in defensive lock-down, junior guard Ryan Boatright (Aurora, Ill.), finished with 14 points.
Napier kneeled down and put his forehead to the court for a long while after the buzzer sounded. The senior guard was wiping back tears when he cut down the net.
“You’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” Napier told the crowd and TV audience.
UConn, which finished the season with a 32-8 record, never trailed in the championship game.. The Huskies led by as many as 15 in the first half and watched the Wildcats, who finish at 29-11, trim the deficit to one with 8:13 left. Aaron Harrison, Kentucky’s big-moment shooter in the last three games, then missed a three-pointer from the left corner that would’ve given Kentucky the lead and the Wildcats never got closer.
One key difference in a six-point loss: Kentucky’s 11 missed free throws — a flashback of sorts for coach John Calipari, whose Memphis team blew a late lead against Kansas after missing multiple free throws in the 2008 final.
The Wildcats went 13 for 24 while UConn went 10 for 10, including graduate student guard Lasan Kromah’s(Greenbelt, Md.) two to seal the game with 25.1 seconds left. “We had our chances to win,” Calipari said. “We’re missing shots, we’re missing free throws. We just didn’t have enough.”
In all, Calipari’s team was topped by a more fundamentally sound, more-seasoned group that came into this tournament a seventh-seeded afterthought but walked away with the program’s fourth national title since 1999. They were the lowest seed to win it all since Rollie Massimino’s eighth-seeded Villanova squad in 1985.
Napier and Boatright now go down with Kemba Walker, Emeka Okafor, Richard Hamilton and all those other UConn champions of the three other teams.
“It’s not about going to the next level, it’s not about going to the pros, but playing for your university, playing for your teammates,” senior forward Niels Giffey (Berlin, Germany) said. “And I’m so proud of all the guys on this team that stuck with this team.”
They were one step ahead of Kentucky all night, holding off furious rally after furious rally.
Kentucky’s biggest push started when James Young (20 points, seven rebounds) posterized UConn freshman centerAmida Brimah (Accra, Ghana) with a monster dunk to start a three-point play and trigger an 8-0 run.
In the middle of that, Boatright, who shut down Harrison’s twin brother, Andrew, most of the night, twisted his left ankle while receiving an innocuous-looking pass from Napier. He called a timeout, got it worked on and came back out.
“I’ve got a lot of heart and I wasn’t coming out,” Boatright said. “We put in too much work all year for me to give up on an ankle sprain.” Napier and Giffey made threes on UConn’s two possessions after the timeout, and that one-point lead was back up to five — fairly comfortable by this tight, taut, buzzer-beating tournament’s standards.
Napier was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player and he earned it on both ends of the court, keeping a hand in Aaron Harrison’s face most of the night and holding him to a three-for-seven, seven-point, no-damage night. Boatright was a member of the NCAA All-Final Four team as was junior forward DeAndre Daniels (Los Angeles, Calif.).