The 2014 College Basketball national champions is a team that was banned from the tournament a year earlier, which has only made UConn hungrier and better when they had a shot at their fourth national title, beating Kentucky 60-54 with another huge night from Shabazz Napier.
UConn become the first program to win two national titles in this decade, following the one in 2011. Jim Calhoun was the head coach then, Kevin Ollie his assistant. Shabazz Napier? A Freshman. In his senior year, instead of transferring, he led the Huskies against plenty of odds and through some rough spots during the season, to the highest place of all. With four national titles, no one can say UConn aren’t an elite program anymore.
Napier finished with 22 points, hitting 4-of-9 from beyond the arc (15 points in the first half), adding 6 rebounds and 6 assists along with 3 steals as the usual pressure from the guards up top interfered with Kentucky’s style, forcing them into bad shots and into traffic, eliminating the Wildcats’ advantage when it comes to scoring in the paint. Like Kemba Walker three years ago, Napier’s fingerprints were on everything. He scored or assisted on 45% of UConn’s points through the Final Four, second only to Walker (56%) over the last five years.
Defense, guard play and free throws have been the key all through this tournament. Kentucky couldn’t handle Napier on the one on one, but even when they doubled him it gave Niles Giffey a chance to hit some big shots, finishing with 10 points. Ryan Boatright was just as difficult to stop, scoring 14 points. DeAndre Daniels had a rough final, shooting only 4-of-14 from the field to score 8 points, but like his teammates, it seemed that whenever Kentucky were getting close, someone was there to make a stop and a big play on the other end to keep the lead on UConn’s side.
Kentucky had 12 possessions in the second half down by 3 points or less. They were only 1-of-9 on those opportunities, turning the ball over three more times. When they look back at the game, some might suggest the UConn’s perfect 10-of-10 from the line compared to Kentucky’s 13-of-24 made all the difference, but there’s more to numbers when deciding a game, and UConn simply made the big plays when they needed to, while Kentucky struggled in the moments they had to steal the game back.
Stopping Julius Randle might have been their biggest defensive achievement. They prevented him from touching the ball, allowing him only 15 touches out of 62 possessions. Randle was boxed out very well, finishing with 10 points and six rebounds. James Young with 20 points made a couple of big shots, and so did Aaron Harrison, but in general the Huskies did a great job of keeping Kentucky out of the paint and off rhythm, meaning that aside from the impressive dunk here and there, we didn’t see too much offense from the Wildcats on a consistent basis.
Kevin Ollie needed only two seasons to bring back UConn to a familiar place, that of champions. He did it without Freshman stars or any McDonald’s All-American players. This was the first time a team ranked outside the AP’s top 15 going into the tournament went all the way and won, which would have been the same for Kentucky, unranked going into the tournament (UConn were #18).
You’re looking at the hungry Huskies. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you banned us. 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. And I’m so proud of all the guys on this team that stuck with this team.