ARLINGTON, Texas — As both teams jogged off the floor at halftime of Monday night's national title game, Kentucky Wildcats fans rose to their feet and roared, surely thinking their team had the Connecticut Huskies right where they wanted them.
Again Kentucky fell way behind early in the first half. Again the Wildcats clawed back within striking distance by halftime. All they had to do to secure the championship was impose their will in the second half the same way they had their previous four NCAA tournament victories.
That it didn't happen this time is a testament to UConn's dynamic point guard and leader. Shabazz Napier scored a game-high 22 points and UConn's resilient, disciplined defense stifled the Wildcats all game long to conclude an unlikely national championship run with a 60-54 victory.
"Coach [Kevin] Ollie told us, this is going to be a two-year plan, and since that day on we believed," Napier said. "We had faith in each other, and we are here. We won the whole thing. We didn't listen to any doubters. We just went out there and did what we had to do."
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Winning a fourth national championship since 1999 continues UConn's rapid ascent from regional power, to perennial national contender, to program with blue blood-level credentials. The Huskies' unlikely postseason run also signals the program's success may be sustainable without Jim Calhoun, a goal that seemed uncertain in the unstable period immediately after the legendary coach announced his retirement in September 2012.
Kevin Ollie arrived as an interim coach in a difficult position, needing to prove himself worthy of the full-time gig despite inheriting a program reeling from a one-year postseason ban, a coaching change and the departure of several key transfers. Ollie won over his administration and fan base by overcoming that adversity, inspiring last season's team to play hard enough to win 20 games despite the postseason ban and building on that this season by winning 32 games and springing five consecutive upsets on the way to the national title.
"[Ollie] took our foundation and put his imprint and his style on it," Calhoun said. "I couldn't be more proud of the job he's done. He was the absolute perfect fit for UConn."
Such a remarkable achievement bolsters the legacies of the men who made it happen.
Ollie became the first coach since Steve Fisher to win the national title in his first NCAA tournament as head coach, helping him further emerge from the shadow of the omnipresent Calhoun.
Napier earned Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors and solidified himself as one of UConn's most beloved players, joining the likes of past national championship heroes Rip Hamilton, Emeka Okafor and Kemba Walker.
"It's unbelievable," Giffey said. "It's so surreal because you're so caught up in the game and so much stuff is running through your head. Then the clock hits zero and all of a sudden your college career is over. All these emotions come at you in one moment. It's surreal."
To secure the victory, UConn fittingly had to survive one final charge from the Cardiac 'Cats.
The national title was starting to slip away from Kentucky midway through the second half when James Young reversed momentum with a jaw-dropping dunk. The freshman wing drove the middle of the lane and threw down a soaring one-handed slam over 7-foot Amida Brimah, igniting an 8-0 spurt that trimmed a nine-point deficit to one and ensured a riveting title game would have a fittingly fun finish.
Kentucky's comeback was undone by 13-of-24 foul shooting and by a pair of huge threes by Napier and Giffey. The first one halted the Kentucky run and gave UConn a 53-49 lead. The second one extended the lead to five and gave the Huskies the cushion they needed.
"We missed some shots we needed to make and we missed some free throws, but these kids aren't machines," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "They're not robots. They're not computers. ... But I'm proud of them. They fought and tried and played a really good team that's well coached."
If viability of the one-and-done model was in doubt when Calipari first implemented it at Kentucky, even the most cynical of critics can't argue with the results now. In five years under Calipari, the Wildcats have reached four Elite Eights, made three Final Fours, played in two national title games and captured one championship, with only last season's opening-round NIT exit serving as a reminder that the approach can be boom-or-bust.
This Kentucky season appeared likely to be remembered as a disappointment too when a Wildcats team that began the season as the preseason No. 1 staggered into the NCAA tournament with 10 losses and a No. 8 seed. Instead Kentucky enjoyed a stunning reversal of fortune in March, emerging from a region hailed as the NCAA tournament's toughest to make the Final Four and then dispatching of Wisconsin before falling Monday night.
For a while it seemed Kentucky might have one more comeback left. This time it fell short.
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