ARLINGTON, Texas — This is where Kentucky excelled.
Backs against the wall. Trailing in an NCAA tournament game. The game on the line in the final minute. Throughout the tournament, fans witnessed miracle after miracle as Kentucky fought its way back and it seemed all 79,238 fans Monday night at AT&T Stadium were waiting for another one.
Surely, they’d come back in the championship game as they had done in the previous five games to reach the game where it really mattered.
Connecticut reminded the nation that they just as dogged, just as surprising a story, just as deserving as Kentucky. Unlike other Kentucky opponents, the Huskies never buckled.
As blue confetti sprinkled onto court, Connecticut sprinted into the middle of it with a 60-54 victory. They became the first No. 7 seed to win a tournament title, adding a fourth banner to the rafters at Gampel Pavilion. In just his second season at Connecticut, coach Kevin Ollie is becoming as big a hero in Storrs, Conn., as Jim Calhoun.
Instead of a game-winning shot at the buzzer, the Wildcats were done in the most vanilla of ways: at the free throw line.
No. 8 seeded Kentucky made only 13 of 24 free throws, while the Huskies were a perfect 10-for-10 at the line. Coach John Calipari’s Memphis team lost to Kansas in similar fashion in 2008’s championship game.
As if we needed another reminder of the Huskies’ toughness, Connecticut never relinquished its lead.
They were up by as many as 15 points against the Wildcats, the largest Kentucky has faced in the tournament. Kentucky kept kicking at the door, but couldn’t quite bust it down.
The Wildcats closed to within 35-34 at the start of the second half. They crept to within 48-47 with more than eight minutes remaining. Down 58-54 with 1:08 left, they couldn’t deliver this time.
As they’ve shown all tournament, Connecticut’s guards were stellar.
Shabazz Napier scored 22 points, and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. Ryan Boatright, playing the last nine minutes on a gimpy ankle, added 14 points.
“We worked all year for this,” Boatright said.
James Young led the Wildcats with 20 points as Julius Randle struggled with cramps in the first half. Neither team was expected to be on this stage
The difference was that at some point this season, a championship run was expected out of Kentucky, which was ranked No. 1 in the preseason. Connecticut? No one ever saw this coming.
A season ago, the Huskies were in the NIT. They lost by 33 points to Louisville in March. They finished tied for third in the American Athletic Conference. They were almost bounced in the first tournament game by St. Joseph’s.
The Huskies won their fourth tournament title, adding a second in four seasons.
The all-tournament team was made up of Kentucky’s Julius Randle and James Young and Connecticut’s Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Napier.